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Middle English

A gomerel sheep on Skye <em>Picture: Richard Dorrell</em>

A gomerel sheep on Skye Picture: Richard Dorrell

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Last time I wrote about glaikit, and I am staying in the world of folly. Gomerel is Scots for a stupid or foolish person, or someone who – in the opinion of the user of the word – has behaved foolishly or unwisely.

It is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, which rhymes with gone, and you can get a great deal of passion and venom into its rather guttural sound.

Gomerel is most commonly used as a noun, but it can also act as an adjective. The word will gladden the hearts of those who never quite mastered spelling, because it has several alternative forms, such as gomeril, gomeral and gommerel. It is virtually impossible to misspell it, although gomerel is the most usual modern form.

Gomerel has another meaning and a curious one at that. Occasionally it is used to describe a person whose lower front teeth stick out beyond the upper teeth when their mouth is closed. It would be ungracious, not to say untrue, to suggest that such a dental feature is typical of fools, and so this meaning is a bit unfair.

The word gomerel is likely to be the source of gommy, a word which is found in the west of Scotland and has the same meaning as gomerel in its sense of fool or stupid person. Gommy can also act as an adjective. Someone whose stupidity knows no bounds could be described as a gommy eejit (idiot), unless they are bigger than you are and you are within striking distance.

Gomerel has its roots in the Scots verb goam. Goam can mean to look around rather vacantly in an unfocused way, as you might do if you get off a bus at the wrong stop in a strange place and have no idea where you are. Apparently animals, as well as humans, are prone to goaming.

Goam can also mean to pay attention to or notice, another meaning being to recognise or greet someone. Both senses are usually found in the negative, as in She didna goam (did not notice) the car until it hit her. Or: He didna goam his auld freen. (He didn’t recognise his old friend.)

Goam, which was fairly common in some northern English dialects, has come down from Middle English gome, meaning understanding or discernment, and has connections with Old Norse gaumr, meaning heed or attention.

From goam is derived the adjective goamless. Yes, you have guessed right. Goamless means stupid or foolish. Still, you can never have too many words relating to stupidity, since there is such a lot of it about. The English beat us to it as far as goamless is concerned. It appeared in northern English dialects before it came to Scots and is a forerunner of English gormless, meaning lacking intelligence, commonsense or initiative.

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A bad case of plooks <em>From An introduction to dermatology, 1905, by Norman Purvis Walker</em>

A bad case of plooks From An introduction to dermatology, 1905, by Norman Purvis Walker

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Fernietickle, which I wrote about last time, and plook both refer to a mark that may appear on the face – but, apart from location, there is not much similarity between them. Linguistically, fernietickle is a much more attractive word than plook and, while a light dusting of fernietickles (or freckles) can be a beauty enhancer, this is not true of plooks.

A plook, pronounced as it is spelt and with alternative spelling plouk, is Scots for a spot, pimple or boil.

Most of us have suffered from a plook – or, worse, plooks – at some time in our lives. They plague the young in particular, especially those in the terrible teens. Just when a teenager is getting all dressed up to impress a member of the opposite sex, out pops the reddest of red pus-filled plooks to disfigure the face and spoil their chances.

One plook is bad enough, but they have a nasty tendency to multiply and some develop into that teenage nightmare, acne.

Acne, incidentally, may be the absolute pits as far as teenagers are concerned, but this is not true not of its origins, which are actually rather lofty. Acne has its roots, so to speak, in the Greek word acme, from which we also get acme meaning the highest point.

The Greeks also used this word to mean a point or a spot on the face, but when Latin adopted the word acme, it was misspelt as acne. Latin handed on the error to English.

Plook does not have such an exciting history. Indeed, it is one of that legion of words in Scots and in English which are of uncertain origin. It seems likely to be related to Middle English plouke, a pimple or a pustule, which is an even less attractive word than plook. German plock, pluck, a plug or bung (no, not the bribe), is also a possible relative.

If you have a smattering of spots on your face, or, for that matter, elsewhere, this can be referred to as plookiness. You as the sufferer can be described a pluke-faced plooky or plouky – although you would almost definitely rather not be. In the past, you might also have been referred to as plucky, which looks much better, but that is no longer current.

The word plook can also be used figuratively. You could say that the plook of your anger came to a heid (head), although this is a bit literary, not to say over the top. More commonly, plook has become almost synonymous with carbuncle in its figurative sense.

This sense of carbuncle, as you may know, shot to fame when Prince Charles used it to refer to the extension that was then being made to the façade of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square in London. He said it was “like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”.

Plook, not to be outdone, also got involved in the architectural world, although not at such an august level. Those behind the architecture magazine Prospect started a competition known as the Plook on the Plinth. The award is given to the place in Scotland which is deemed to be worst in terms for planning and architecture.

Didn’t plook do well! I bet Prince Charles wishes he had thought of it.

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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<em>Picture: Loyna</em>

Picture: Loyna

By Betty Kirkpatrick

We have had a few days of sunshine recently and many Scots, as is their wont, have stripped off in response to this. They seemed to be impervious to the chilly winds that accompanied said sunshine, at least in some parts of the country.

Some Scots sun-worshippers seem instantly to acquire a glowing tan at the first blink of sunshine and so become the envy of some of their friends. Others go scarlet and blistery after a few hours spent in relentless sunbathing behind a windbreak. Some see an increase in their fernietickles.

Fernietickles, pronounced as it is spelt and sometimes spelt with a hyphen or as two words, is Scots for freckles. Fernietickle, also known as ferntickle, is derived from Middle English farntikylle and is thought to take its name from the fact that a freckle resembles a brown fern spore, not a particularly attractive origin. The “tickle” part is probably from tickle meaning a small part or grain.

Fernietickles are not always regarded as an attractive feature. A scarcely discernible light dusting of them is thought to be all very well – but, when they overlap and join up with each other, fernietickles seem larger and more obvious. It has to be said that fernietickles, however small or large, are usually much more obvious to the bearers of these than to people who are viewing them on the skin of others.

Nowadays, fernietickled people (I was going to say particularly women – but, given the money spent on men’s cosmetics, this is perhaps no longer true) often go to great lengths to find some kind of bleaching cream that promises to cure them of what they regard as a skin problem. Older suggested remedies included the use of vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk.

It was also hoped by some fernietickled people that the traditional custom of washing the face with early morning dew on the first of May, thought to be a general beauty-enhancer, would remove their fernitickles. Of course, they can also just stay out of the sun, not a difficult task in our climate.

Some fond relatives once tried to relieve the concerns of young people who were wreathed in fernietickles by telling them that they should be pleased about their facial feature. Fernietickles, or so one story went, were a sign that people exhibiting them were actually a form of chosen people. This was because the fairies (good fairies, that is) had bestowed the fernietickles on them at birth.

Fernietickles are not usually seen on people with darker – known in Scots as din – complexions, but are a particularly common feature of the fair Scottish skin. They are typically to be seen on the skin of red-haired people with such a skin, but dark-haired, fair-skinned Celts are also frequently fernietickled.

Incidentally, fernietickled is not restricted to skin. It can also be used of something, such as a story or comment, that is very often, probably too often, repeated. A much more attractive way of saying hackneyed, overworked or even clichéd.

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.

Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

Keek o’ day at Gruinard <em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Keek o’ day at Gruinard Picture: Anne Burgess

By Betty Kirkpatrick

I was in a bus the other day when a toddler was attempting to get the rest of the passengers to join in her game. She was covering her eyes with her scarf, then removing it and shouting out “keek”.

Most of the passengers took part with enthusiasm, even those who obviously had no idea what keek means. Still, they got the essential message of the game, which in Scotland is called keek, keekboo or keekaboo and in England peekaboo.

The game is derived from the Scots verb keek, which means to take a quick look at something. The quick look often involves some degree of secrecy, inquisitiveness, or surreptitiousness. A nosey neighbour might keek through a chink in the curtains to see what their neighbour is up to. A would-be cheat might try and keek at someone else’s answers during a school test.

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Keek can also be a noun, with meanings corresponding to that of the verb. Thus, before venturing into a restaurant, you might try and get a quick keek at the menu so that you can make sure that there is something on it that you will like – and be able to afford. Fortunately, many restaurants now take the surreptitiousness out of keeking by displaying the menu in the window.

If you decide to keek in on someone you pay them a short visit, often unannounced. This visit is known, not surprisingly, as a keek. Remember that not everyone is enthused by such unscheduled keeks.

Keek, which is pronounced as it is spelt, appeared in Scots in the late 15th century. It is derived from Middle English kiken or keken and has connections with Dutch kijken, to peep or look.

Keek has given rise to various compounds or phrases. Keekin-glass is a looking-glass or mirror, reminding us of those vain people who cannot pass anything shiny without having a quick keek to check on their reflection. A keek-hole is a peep-hole, a chink in something through which an inquisitive person can keek in order to satisfy their curiosity. Rather poetically, keek o’ day is dawn or sunrise and keek o’ noon is midday.

A keek-the-vennel is a nickname given to a school attendance officer who was out to identify truants and bring retribution to them. A vennel is a lane or an alley. Presumably the attendance officer was always taking quick looks up such alleys with a view to glimpsing those who should have been safely behind their school desks. In similar vein, a keek-roon-corners is a spy, roon meaning round,

The best-known derivative of keek nowadays is keeker. This originally referred to a person who keeks and was particularly used of a peeping Tom. It then went on to mean the eye, the organ that is keeked through. Keeker is also used to refer to a microscope, a far-keeker being a telescope.

However, these are violent times and the most appropriate meaning of keeker for such times is black eye, sometimes known as a blue keeker. Allegedly, such keekers are most commonly caused by walking into doors.

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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Some mawks, or maggots <em>Picture: Andrew Barker</em>

Some mawks, or maggots Picture: Andrew Barker

By Betty Kirkpatrick

I have commented before on the fact that Scots is rich in words relating to dirt. One of these words is mawkit.

Now there is dirt and there is dirt, and mawkit lies at the filthy end of the dirt scale. Commonly also spelt maukit and sometimes mockit, mawkit is a two-syllable word pronounced as it is spelt with the emphasis on the first syllable which rhymes with law.

There is often more than a hint of exaggeration in the use of mawkit. People and things so described may not be quite as dirty as the word suggests. Mawkit is often used of children and certainly, even in these days of over-protection, some children have a propensity to get absolutely filthy. They can rightly be described as mawkit. However, a few smears of chocolate on the face and white shirt do not really merit the use of mawkit.

Similarly, houses and cars have been known to be described as mawkit, when really all they are in need of is a bit of a dust and dicht (a quick wipe). Mawkitness, like beauty and so many other things, is in the eyes of the beholder.

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Given its meaning, mawkit is obviously anything but a pleasant word and, appropriately, its background is far from pleasant. It is derived from mawk, which came to Scots from Middle English, and probably has its origins in Old Norse. A mawk, or mauk, is a maggot.

For the sake of those unfamiliar with maggots, they are soft, pale-coloured, worm-like creatures which are the larvae of flies. They are often to be found in rotting meat and other unsavoury things. They also inhabit corpses which have been left lying around and this gets them a mention in a lot of crime fiction these days. Apparently, forensic scientists can date the time that has elapsed since the death of the corpse by assessing the stage of development of the maggots. Gruesome, but true.

Rotting meat and abandoned corpses can literally be described as mawkit. As well as being a noun meaning a maggot, mawk can be a verb meaning to infest with maggots. In English, both the past tense and past participle of regular verbs is formed with the ending “ed”, but in Scots this often becomes “it”. Thus mawkit literally means infested with maggots. Sheep are apparently martyrs to this problem when they get maggots embedded in their flesh.

Rotting meat, corpses and sheep are not the only things that could rightly be described literally as mawkit. Raspberries, for example, can become infested with maggots and so become mawkit. I once had a close encounter with some mawkit raspberries when I was working in a long-closed small canning factor during a university vacation.

We were told that the contents of any baskets of raspberries showing signs of maggots should be emptied into special containers. Cynics claimed that the contents of these were then boiled up and had the maggots skimmed off before being made into jam. Did I believe this? Of course not.

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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