By Betty Kirkpatrick
We all feel the need to direct an insult at someone occasionally to show that we are less than happy with them. Not infrequently the insult suggests that the person so addressed is slow-witted or foolish. In Scots, one of the words commonly used to indicate this is glaikit, pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable which rhymes with take.
If you describe someone as glaikit you can mean that you consider them to be permanently lacking in any sense and that they are, quite frankly, stupid. On the other hand, the smartest people can be rightly accused of being glaikit if they are having a bad brain day or if their brain is not yet in gear. Temporarily, they are not very bright and are guilty of doing something which you think is foolish or senseless.
Glaikit can be used of foolish or irresponsible actions as well as foolish or irresponsible people. So you might comment when someone has just had their car stolen that it was a glaikit thing to do to leave the keys in the ignition. Mostly, it is other people who are guilty of doing glaikit things.
Glaikit is also frequently used of facial expressions or physical appearance. If someone is standing still, with a blank look on their face, especially when they should be in proactive mode, someone may well say “Don’t just stand there looking glaikit. Do something!” Someone dressed in full evening dress might feel that they look really glaikit getting on public transport in the middle of the afternoon, although such an action is necessary if they are to get to the appointed venue in time.
Formerly glaikit meant playful or given to playing tricks or pranks. It could also mean flirtatious – although, not surprisingly, this was mostly used with reference to women. Real men do not flirt, do they? Deceitful was another common earlier meaning, although this appears to have been more unisex in its application.
The origin of glaikit is uncertain, although it is likely that it has connections with glaik, a verb of obscure origin meaning to look foolishly at or to trifle or flirt with. Also connected, and also of obscure origin, is the noun glaik meaning a stupid or irresponsible person – often, apparently and quite unfairly, used of the female of the species.
This noun was originally found only in the plural form glaiks and meant deception or trickery. If you gie (give) someone the glaiks, or fling the glaiks in someone’s een (eyes), you are out to deceive or delude them. On the other hand, if you get the glaiks you are the one being deceived. Perhaps you have been a bit glaikit not to have sussed this out.
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.