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Fleshmarket Close, a sair pech <em>Picture: Richard Webb</em>

Fleshmarket Close, a sair pech Picture: Richard Webb

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Most Fringe fans come to Edinburgh relatively well-equipped for the experience. They have reserved their accommodation and they have either booked and received their tickets in advance, or have been blessed with enough enthusiasm, patience and goodwill to stand in a queue at the booking office.

Many of them have remembered to pack appropriate weather-wear, having been forewarned – either by watching weather reports or listening to the bush telegraph – of our uncertain climate.

But, as one woman said to me the other day, nobody warns visitors about the hills. Here she was talking not about the Pentlands, Arthur’s Seat or the road up to the castle, but about the hilly roads that must be scaled in order to reach many of the Fringe venues. She was, in fact, referring on this occasion to the Mound.

She could have a point. Certainly it is true that a trip to some of the venues will leave the less fit among us red of face and peching. Dedicated couch potatoes may be close to collapse.

To pech in Scots means to breathe heavily, usually after taking exercise. The English equivalent is pant, but this is not nearly so descriptive. The breathy sound of pech more eloquently describes the person left almost gasping for breath. Indeed, the word pech probably came into being because the sound of it so aptly echoes the meaning.

The ch in pech is pronounced like the ch of loch, not the ch of much. For those of you not familiar with the correct pronunciation of loch, try the ch in the composer Bach.

The verb pech can also refer to the process of walking, getting about, working, etc, when this involves more exertion than the body cares for or is up to. Thus, you may find some occasional Sunday afternoon ramblers peching up a hill when the more experienced and fleet of foot trip effortlessly past them.

Pech can also mean to cough in a wheezy way, as though you were asthmatic. It can also refer to letting the breath out slowly and loudly, as when sighing with satisfaction or relief or when groaning. Apparently it can be used figuratively to mean to have an ardent desire for, although to pech for the embrace of a loved one sounds far from romantic.

Pech can also act as a noun. If you are struggling to get your breath back after physical exertion you can be said to be oot (out) o pech, or short o pech. Pech can also be a wheezy, asthmatic cough or a sigh of weariness, satisfaction or relief.

The noun pech can also denote great effort, exertion or struggle. To get over something wi a pech is to get something done only by means of a tremendous effort. If something is a sair (sore) pech it requires prolonged and exhausting effort. This can refer to climbing a particularly steep hill – but, for many, life itself can be a sair pech. What a cheery thought for the day!

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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