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etymology

<em>Picture: ben hanbury</em>

Picture: ben hanbury

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Like Christmas, Hogmanay is associated with eating and drinking, although not usually now in that order of importance. Formerly, though, Hogmanay was more associated with eating, particularly if you were a child. It was the custom for children to go round the houses asking for a gift, usually a cake or something sweet, giving the festival the name of Cake Day.

Incidentally, the giving of gifts on Hogmanay is thought by many people to have a bearing on the origin of the word Hogmanay, although the etymology is uncertain. The most widely accepted suggested origin is that Hogmanay is based on the French word aguillanneuf, meaning first a gift given at New Year and then the festival of New Year itself. The clue is in the second part of the French word which reads l’an neuf, French for New Year.

Nowadays, Hogmanay is still associated with the giving of gifts and it is thought to bring ill-luck to a household if a visitor crosses the threshold in the early hours of New Year without some form of gift. This is particularly true if the empty-handed visitor is the first foot, first fit in Scots, the first person to cross a threshold after midnight has struck.

Sometimes New Year gifts still take the form of sweet things such as shortbread or the immensely calorific black bun, a kind of cake consisting of a pastry case surrounding an extremely rich fruitcake mixture. Sometimes the gift will be a piece of coal, traditionally given to ensure a steady source of warmth throughout the year, although this could be a vain hope in these days of soaring fuel costs.

Mostly nowadays, though, visitors at New Year will be clutching a bottle of whisky. Unless they are exceptionally generous or exceptionally drunk, the bottle of whisky is not actually a gift. The gift for the host is just a glass poured from the bottle which is hastily put back in the visitor’s pocket.

And at last I get to the reason for the title of this article! Forget the cake and even the shortbread and black bun. Hogmanay and New Year are now largely drinking festivals, a time when what Burns described in Tam o’ Shanter as “drouthy neebors” meet to see in the New Year in an alcoholic haze.

Drouthy, also commonly spelt droothy, means thirsty, although the thirst involved is usually a desire for strong drink rather than for water or other beverage. (In the quotation from Burns, neebors is Scots for neighbours.) Often the desire for such a drink is not just a thirst but an addiction. A drouthy neebor may well be an alcoholic one. Those of Tam o’ Shanter were almost certainly so.

Originally, drouthy referred to the weather and meant dry or exceptionally dry. I seem to remember that we used occasionally to have drouthy summers, but recently these have largely disappeared. They still have these in the south, although not so called, but they have become part of the north/south divide, leaving us with several inches of rain while our southern neighbours complain of a drought.

Originally, drought meant simply dryness and it is etymologically connected with Scots drouth, from which drouthy is formed. Both drought and drouth have their roots in Old English drugath.

Drouth can also mean thirst, and Hogmanay revellers are likely to have a great drouth on them. If they regularly give in to such a drouth too often, they may themselves grow into drouths, in other words habitual drinkers or alcoholics. Eventually, they may end up literally dying for a drink.

But away with such a depressing and sobering thought. It’s Hogmanay! Slainte! All the best for 2012!

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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Edinburgh jam <em>Picture: Paul McIlroy</em>

Edinburgh jam Picture: Paul McIlroy

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Traditionally it is the city of Dundee that is famous for jam. Now Edinburgh has taken over this crown, albeit for a different kind of jam, the traffic jam. It has been announced that Scotland’s capital city is second only to London in the UK as far as traffic congestion is concerned, and seventh in the list of the top 30 most congested European cities. No surprises there for those of us who live in Edinburgh or who visit it regularly.

The word jam, as in traffic jam, has its roots in the verb to jam. This came into English in the early 18th century, meaning to press, push or squeeze tightly. Daniel Defoe is thought to be one of the first writers to use the word in Robinson Crusoe (1719): “The ship stuck fast, jammed in between two rocks.”

Jam belongs to that substantial category of words described in etymology as unknown or uncertain. One suggestion is that the verb jam may be a variant of the verb champ, meaning to step on or to crush under foot – although that does not appear to have much in the way of modern support. It is possible that the word is imitative of the act of pushing or pressing. Who knows?

The verb jam, whatever its etymology, went on to extend its meanings to include to fill somewhere with people or things pressed closely together, so that individual movement is difficult or impossible – as in streets jammed with Christmas shoppers, or roads jammed with rush-hour traffic. It also came to mean to cause something, such as a piece of machinery, to stick or to stop working, as in sheets of paper have jammed the printer.

The verb duly gave birth to a noun jam meaning, for example, a mass of things or people crowded together so as to prevent individual movement. Thus we get log jam and traffic jam. Jam also came to mean an instance of something being blocked or prevented from functioning, and then took on a figurative meaning. If you are in a jam you are having great difficulty in manoeuvring yourself out of an awkward or problematic situation.

The other sense of the noun jam – fruit and sugar boiled together to form a thick consistency – again causes headaches for etymologists. Its origin is also unknown or uncertain. An early and not very convincing suggestion was that jam came from French j’aime, I love, because jam was so good to eat. There is a later suggestion that it is formed from the other aforementioned jam, specifically that it refers to the act of pushing or jamming the fruit substance into jars. Etymologists do try their best.

The fruit-based jam has found its way into several idioms. Do you want jam on it? is used to indicate that someone is being completely unreasonable in their demands, while money for jam is an alternative to money for old rope, meaning money paid to someone in return for very little work or effort.

Jam is also well known figuratively for the expression jam tomorrow, which promises better things to come in the future – although there is often an underlying suggestion that such a promise will never be fulfilled. It is frequently used with reference to political promises. The expression has its origins in a statement by the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871):

The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.

To return to Edinburgh and its now notorious traffic jams, I wonder when the survey was conducted that led to the current listing of congested cities. Could it have been at the height of the intrusive roadworks being carried out for the ill-starred tram system? If that is the case, then we could perhaps call Edinburgh’s traffic congestion a tram jam.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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