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The wealth of Scottish words

Maggie Fergusson picks 11 essential terms

Maggie Fergusson | March 5th 2015

In the town of Beauly, ten miles west of Inverness, there’s a tweed shop much beloved of Highlanders. Until last month it had been in the same family since 1858, and had been run for time immemorial by the same trio: a brother (the tailor) and his two sisters, all unmarried. The sisters, a friend tells me, were wonderfully “perjink” old ladies.

Even if you’re not familiar with “perjink”, I bet you can intuit its meaning. It has shades of neat, tidy, pernickety and prim—yet none of these alone quite nails it. It set me thinking of the wealth of Scottish words so subtle and expressive and many-layered that they make the English language seem suddenly poor and thin. Here are ten more I would not be without:

Dreich  A useful one at this time of year (though as I write spring sunshine is breaking through the clouds): dull, damp, miserable, grey—but all four together.

Gathered  Scots tend not to say someone has died, but that they’ve been “gathered”. It’s gentler, somehow; less stark. And I love the way it hints at a great fold of forebears waiting the other side of the veil.

Hirpling  The origin of this word—which means hobbling, stumbling, faltering and limping, all at once—is unknown, but you hear it said often in Scotland.

Thrawn  For a full disquisition on this one, turn to John Burnside’s outstanding third volume of memoir, “I Put a Spell on You”. In short: perverse, obstinate, cross-grained, awry. There’s a hint here of madness, Burnside says, but viewed with respect, even admiration. Fascinating.

Peedie  The Orkney version of the Scottish “wee”. Doesn’t a “peedie bairn” (“bairn” is my seventh word) sound more appealing than “a little baby”?

Flit  While English people “move house”, Scots “flit”: the whole ghastly business suddenly sounds frolicsome and fun.

Upskittled  A word no mother of toddlers should be without: upside down, muddled up, tossed around.

Swither  This may sound like a simple conjoining of swivel and dither, but its meaning is complex: to doubt, hesitate and waver, certainly; but also to appear in shifting forms.

Thole  This is my favourite, so I’ve saved it until last. The Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown wrote of “tholing” the winter, and his recurrent depressions. It means to suffer, to endure, to persevere—but it holds out the promise that in doing these things, you’ll not only win through eventually, you’ll grow.

Last week, I was lucky enough to meet Marion Coutts, whose memoir “The Iceberg”—about her husband’s slow death from a brain tumour—was one of the most remarkable books I read last year. Four years on from his death, she told me, she had just, for the first time, managed to read a novel cover to cover. She’d loved it. She had also just made a piece of art, and was proud of it. She seemed like a person who had been through a long, utterly debilitating illness, and was returning to health with a new, voracious appetite. She had tholed well.

Read more Maggie Fergusson on John Burnside's slow-release magic, and Marion Coutts on Nigeria's national dish and the art of Goya

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