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Old English

A pair of preen-taes?

A pair of preen-taes?

By Betty Kirkpatrick

In English, preen is commonly a verb. Originally used to refer to birds cleaning and smoothing their feathers with their beaks, it then came to be used of humans who are excessively concerned with their appearance and who spend hours titivating themselves and admiring their reflection in mirrors and shop window.

Then it developed the meaning of to display excessive pleasure and pride over an achievement of some kind, much to the annoyance of everyone else

Scots also has a word preen. Although it does exist as a verb, it is more commonly used as a noun meaning the equivalent of the English word pin, as used in sewing. The main meaning of the Scots verb is to fasten something such as the hem of a dress with pins or to sew something up.

Scots preen is derived from Old English preon, meaning a pin or a brooch. The English preen may have some connection with preon also, but it is generally thought to be a form of the verb prune, as in to prune a bush, which has its origins in Old French proignier.

A preen scart means literally a scratch from a pin, and very painful this can be. However, the noun preen is used in various figurative ways. If you are sittin on preens you are in a distinctly agitated and nervous state, the equivalent of English being on tenterhooks. You may be in such a state if you are awaiting exam results or praying that the sale of your house has gone through.

Preen is used to indicate something of very little value or consequence, although when pins were first introduced they were very expensive. To emphasise this lack of value, preen is sometimes combined with heid, a preen-heid being a pinhead. So you might be hoarding what you think is a valuable vase, only to discover that “it’s no worth a preen-heid”. Or you might say that someone “disnae care a preen-heid about someone”, indicating a person’s total lack of affection or concern for someone else.

Preen-heid has formed the adjective preen-heidit. This is mostly used of people and it is certainly not a compliment. If you describe someone as preen-heidit you mean that they are stupid and completely lacking in intelligence. Of course, they may think the same of you.

A more obscure compound of preen is preen-tae. This does not mean, as you might expect, a toe that resembles a pin, perhaps because it is very thin. No, a preen-tae, which has the alternative form preen-til, is something or someone that is attached to something or someone else. In buildings it can be a lean-to or an extension.

As far as people are concerned, a preen-tae can be someone who is the constant companion of someone else, someone who seems joined at the hip to another. Preen-tae can have clandestine overtones because it is also used to describe a paramour or mistress. This is hardly a glamorous description, even less so than kept woman.

The verb preen has some interesting figurative connections. To preen back yir lugs is the direct equivalent of English pin back your ears and means to listen carefully and attentively. However, the Scots expression can also mean to get ready to eat a hearty meal. I am not sure what preparations are required for that.

If you preen something to your sleeve you make a mental note that this is something that you have to remember. Such mental notes do not work for everyone. They are probably better to tie a knot in their handkerchief, write something on their hand or make a note on their phone or laptop.

Preen has the alternative form prin, although the pronunciation is the same. I recently came across a very descriptive expression using prin. The expression was a stiff prin, meaning a person of importance and power in charge of something. I think that is one well worth reviving.

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: 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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Besoms of the bristly sort <em>Picture: wayne's eye view</em>

Besoms of the bristly sort Picture: wayne's eye view

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Scots is not lacking in ways of indicating our disapproval or contempt for others. Many of the nouns that fall into this category are either unisex or used mainly of men. However, there are exceptions to this and one of these is besom. When applied to a person these days, a besom is almost invariably female.

As is the case with many Scots words, besom has had various alternative spellings through the years. Some of these, which include bisom, bissum, boosum, bizzom and bizzum, more closely reflect the pronunciation of the word, because besom is pronounced not as the modern spelling suggests, but as biz-zum with the stress on the first syllable.

Besom carries a range of meanings. It was originally sometimes used of a woman whose morals were rather questionable and sometimes of a woman who was a bit of a slattern when it came to standards of hygiene. Nowadays, besom can be applied to a woman or girl whose attitude and behaviour we find unacceptable, to one who has annoyed us greatly, or just to one whom we thoroughly dislike. However, there can be a lighter note to besom and it can also be applied humorously or fondly to a mischievous child.

Besom is not always used of women. It can also be used to apply to an inanimate object, when it means broom – not the plant with yellow flowers, but a brush used for sweeping. The brush meaning of besom also appears in English, but there it usually applies to a rudimentary sweeping brush made from a bundle of twigs tied to a stick, the stick being known as a besom-stick or a besom-shank. In Scots, besom can also take this meaning, but it can refer also to a more sophisticated model of broom.

Besom is likely to be Germanic in origin, having come into Scots from Old English. The broom meaning of besom came first and the derogatory term for a woman probably arose from the associated idea of someone wielding a broom. Somebody such as a maidservant, whose job was sweeping up would be considered to be very low in status. The meaning went downhill after that.

A house that showed signs of being well-swept (or in these days well-hoovered) and was generally tidy could be described as besom-tichtticht being Scots for tight. Rather confusingly, a house that was described as besom-clean left something to be desired in the cleanliness stakes. The floors might be swept, but not washed, and dust might be lurking elsewhere. I know that look.

Figuratively, besom can be applied to anything thick and bushy. It is particularly appropriate when applied to hair. I am familiar with that look, too, particularly on a bad hair 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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A couple of weans <em>Picture: William Miller, 1796–1882</em>

A couple of weans Picture: William Miller, 1796–1882

By Betty Kirkpatrick

The Edinburgh Fringe is underway and people are flocking from all over the world to see the multifarious events. They even come from Glasgow and some of them bring their weans.

Wean is a Scots word for child. It now tends to be associated mainly with the west of Scotland, although it was formerly more widespread. From the look of the word you might assume that it has something to do with the English verb to wean, as this has obvious connections with children. Not so.

The Scots word does not share a pronunciation with the English verb (ween). Instead, it is pronounced to rhyme with gain (or pain, if you don’t like children). Wean is a result of the running together of two other Scots words – wee and ane.

Ane, also pronounced to rhyme with gain, is the equivalent of the pronoun one, and wee needs no explanation. It is one of our most successful words in that it has spread its influence throughout the English-speaking world. Wee, meaning small or tiny (yes I know I said it needed no explanation), is rather a charming, cosy word. What a pity the word has become a verb with such a close connection with urination, and it is no longer just the weans who use it in that way either.

Wee first came into Scots in the late-14th century as a noun in the phrase a lytil wee meaning “a small distance”. Derived from the Old English waeg, a weight, wee did not make an appearance as an adjective until the middle of the 15th century.

Wee ane is not always shortened to wean. In some parts of Scotland it retains its status as two words and is pronounced accordingly. Sometimes wee ane becomes wee yin, yin being also used as a Scots equivalent of the pronoun one.

Like child, wean can be used to refer to a small young person, aged somewhere in the halcyon time between babyhood and adolescence. It can also refer to a relationship to a parent and be used to mean offspring.

Formerly weans were sometimes referred to as laddie (boy) weans and lassie (girl) weans, but this practice seems to have died out. Perhaps too many mistakes were being made by well-meaning adults and certainly, at a quick glance, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the sexes in the first couple of years of life. Sometimes the difficulty last longer. Fortunately, grandweans or granweans seem to be alive and kicking.

So if weans are now mostly restricted to the west, what are they called in the east and other parts of Scotland? They are called bairns. Well, they are by some people. Mostly they go under the universal designation, kids.

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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By Betty Kirkpatrick

<em>Picture: Space Amoeba</em>

Picture: Space Amoeba

Last time I wrote about the word girn. This time I am writing about a word that is closely related to girn in terms of emotion or mood. That word is greet which is a stage further on than girn. While girn can mean to whine tearfully, to greet is to give full rein to the tears and weep.

The Scots greet is thus completely different in meaning from the English word greet meaning to say hello to someone or to welcome them. The verbs probably have a common ancestor in the Old English gretan. There are also grammatical differences between the two verbs. The past tense of English greet is greeted, as in He greeted them with a wave of the hand. The past tense of Scots greet can be either gret or grat.

Scots greet can also be a noun meaning a bout of weeping. So, when everything gets too much for you, you can sit down and have a right good greet, at least if you are a woman or child. I suspect macho man is still expected to have a stiff upper lip, at least in public.

Greet has given rise to such expressions as greetin match. A greetin match involves one or several of a group of children crying after an unfortunate incident of some kind. Like the English expression it will end in tears, it is used prophetically by parents who can see the potential danger or mishap in some form of play. Children, of course, ignore such warnings.

Then there is greetin face. This can describe someone who looks permanently miserable, as though on the verge of tears. But it can also be used to describe someone who is never satisfied and who is always grumbling or moaning.

This is because greet has a secondary meaning. It started off meaning to shed tears, but it later also came to mean to complain or grumble. From this sense comes greetin Teenie, someone of either sex who always finds something to complain about. Like greetin face, it can also refer to someone with a permanently miserable expression.

Sadly, greet in both senses, in common with girn, tends to manifest itself during family holiday travel. You just have to grin and bear 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.

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Holding handsI was reading an article about the rights of cohabitees the other day and could not help thinking what a clumsy, clinical and unattractive word cohabitee is. Not so the Scots word bidie-in which means much the same as cohabitee.

What is a cohabitee or a bidie-in? They both refer to someone who is living with someone in a sexual relationship but who is not married to that person.

Bidie-in comes from the north-east of Scotland and was more or less restricted to that area for a long time, but things changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bidie-in unexpectedly gained a degree of prominence not only in Scotland, but also in the rest of Britain.

At that time more and more people were choosing to live together, rather than get married. Some language experts became obsessed with finding a word to describe the person with whom someone was living in an unmarried state.

Lover was considered to be too racy and partner was originally set aside because of its associations with business. Some strange alternatives were put forward. One of these was significant other which went on to mean a person of importance or influence in someone’s life. The strangest was POSSLQ, short for persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters. I kid you not, this was seriously considered. Fortunately it did not last.

Bidie-in popped up in the media coverage as a possible contender. It failed to win universal support, perhaps because it sounds too homely and cosy for sophisticated society. The word comes from the verb bide meaning either to stay somewhere temporarily or to live permanently in a place, to reside. It is closely related to the word abide, both having their roots in Old English

What happened to bidie-in? After its brief spell of fame it returned to relative obscurity. More Scots from a wider area used it than before, but it faded from the UK scene. It, like the other suggested words, lost out to partner. Apparently its business connections did not matter after all. No surprise there, then.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth 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.