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Useful Scots word

Reek is one of those words that exist in both Scots and English but with some variation in meaning. The word can act as both a noun and a verb, the noun being derived from Old English rec, smoke and the verb from Old English reocan, to emit smoke. Reek has connections with German Rauch, smoke and rauchen, to smoke.

But to the Scots-English divide. In Scots we tend to think of the core meaning of the noun reek as smoke, of the kind that used to be emitted by chimneys, both domestic and commercial, before the advent of smoke-free zones and central heating. Some of us would instantly associate the word with Auld Reekie, a name given to Edinburgh in recognition of the pall of smoke that once surrounded it. The smoke has gone, but the name has stuck, at least in fairly literary circles.

In English reek meaning smoke now only exists in the part of England bordering Scotland or in archaic, literary contexts. The most common meaning refers to something more unpleasant than mere smoke. It means a very disagreeable smell, as in the nauseating reek of rotting meat or the reek of stale urine permeating the lifts. Smoke may be acrid but it is not as bad as this.

Reek as a verb in Scots commonly means to give out smoke, as The air was much clearer now since chimneys no longer reeked all day. Again this meaning is sometimes found in northern English or in literary or archaic English, but, once again, English tends to associate more unpleasant things with reek, as in The room reeked of stale beer. or He always reeks of cheap aftershave.

This meaning is not always literal. It can be figurative and mean to be suggestive of something nasty or decidedly undesirable, as in The so-called investigation reeked of a cover-up. or The place reeked of years of neglect and despair.

Scots has the well-known phrase lang may your lum reek used to express the speaker’s good wishes for the future. In fact a reeking lum could either be a blessing or a distinct drawback. It was a blessing if the owner of the house had enough fuel to cause a reek to rise up through the chimney and so keep the household warm. On the other hand, a reeking lum could be one in which smoke wafts back down the chimney and covers the room, causing the inhabitants to cough and splutter.

A reeking lum could be even more of a drawback if you were a male of the species. If a man had a nagging, domineering wife he could be said to have a reeking lum at home. Very likely the wife in question would gie (=give) the man through the reek or even gie him it het (=hot) and reekin. In other words she would give him a good scolding. In such a case he could be said to be getting his kail (=soup) through the reek. Hopefully she would stop short of severe physical punishment and would not gar his rumple (=buttocks) reek.

If the wife was furiously angry she could be said to be fair reekin and consequently raise a reek, cause a great fuss or commotion. But she may have had a reason. The husband could have come home once again fair reekin, not angry, but very drunk.

We mostly associate the written word body with the physical structure of a human or animal, although those of us who are addicted to tales of murder and mystery may be more familiar with the word body when the said structure is lifeless. Body in the human structure sense occurs in both English and Scots, although in Scots it is often pronounced boady.

There is another body which has a different meaning and a different pronunciation. Pronounced along the lines of buddy, it is derived from Old English bodigand is used to refer to a person. Although it does exist in English, its use is much more widespread in Scots.

In English, the most common use of body is in compound pronouns, as anybody, nobody, everybody, etc. Scots has equivalents of these in the form of onybody, anybody, as in Can onybody park here?; naebody, nobody, as in Naebody kens (=knows) yet.; a’body, everybody, as in A’body hates him.

In Scots, body is often found on its own, rather than as part of a compound, although it is often found accompanied by an adjective. Somehow I always think of it as rather a cosy, friendly  word suggesting a degree of affection, sympathy, or admiration as in She’s a kind old body. The old man’s quite ill, but he’s a cheery body  The old woman’s a sad wee body.

However, body can apparently suggest less admirable, more contemptible qualities. It appears that someone you dislike or disapprove of can be described as a right mean wee body or an interfering old body.

That brings me to the fact that I seem always to have come across body with relevance to the old or the small, and often to a combination of the two. Am I wrong about this too? Would you be likely to describe a horrible hunk built like a tank as a nasty big body?

Certainly there is some evidence of a connection between body and small people. One of the now generally less common meanings is a little person. Body was also once applied to a child, usually one from a large family.

The phrase nae ither body is used to emphasize that there is no one else involved, as in Tam lives there by himself and nae ither body’s allowed in.  The expression a’body’s body, meaning literally every person’s person, can be used to refer to someone who is generally a favourite, liked by everyone. However, it has a darker side, being also used to mean a sycophant or toady.

In Scots, body as applied to a person is often used to refer to the person who is speaking or writing, as in Can’t a body get any peace around here? Or Where can a body get a drink in this place? Body here is the equivalent of English one, as in Can one not get any peace around here?

This use of one was once very common, but has now mostly been replaced by the more informal “you”, one being considered the preserve of royals or similar posh people. Some see this as an example of the dumbing down of the English language. Others were very glad to get rid of one.

People who are not generally familiar with the Scots language but who are aficionados of the works of Robert Burns are likely to have come across the word body meaning a person in the song Comin through the rye.

Gin a body meet a body
Comin through the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?
Gin a body meet a body
Comin through the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warld (=world) ken?

A case of the two meanings of body literally coming together, perhaps.

A midden. Picture: Chiara Marra

This week I am staying with last week’s theme of waste (see keech). The subject is midden which originally in both Scots and English meant a pile of animal keech as found in a farmyard, otherwise known as a dunghill. The word originated in Old Norse and came to us from Middle English myddyng.

In both Scots and English midden then came to mean a pile of rubbish generally. The word still exists in English, but it is generally regarded either as rather old-fashioned or archaic or dialectal. This did not happen in Scotland where midden has gone from strength to strength.

From being a rubbish tip, a compost heap or a domestic ash-pit, midden came to mean a bin for refuse, or dustbin, and its contents. In some places it was used to refer to the area at the back of tenements where communal dustbins were kept. Midden kept pace with developments in sanitation and came to be used to describe the domestic rubbish put out for collection by the relevant local authority.

What is often now known as bin day, the day on which refuse is collected, was frequently known as midden day. Of course, in these days of recycling there are often several midden days in the week, one for cardboard, one for glass and so on.

The bin lorry (I am not sure what the current politically correct official term for that is) in some parts of Scotland was known as the midden motor. Another name for this was midgie motor and this was manned by midgie men.

A midden raker, also midgie raker, was someone who went through other people’s rubbish in the hope of finding something that they found useful or valuable. If the raker was female she was known as a midden mavis. The modern equivalent of midden rakers are to be found driving round skips. Middens where the most valuable discarded items were likely to be found, mostly in areas where the rich lived, were known as lucky middens.

Midden can be used figuratively of either a place or a person. A kitchen that is in need of a good clean can rightly be described as a midden, as can a car that is full of assorted sweet wrappings, crisp packets, juice cartons, decaying banana skins and less savoury objects. A knacker’s midden is an extreme example of either of these. A person dubbed a midden is also often in need of a good clean or at least a rigorous tidy up. Alternatively, a midden can be a particularly greedy person or animal.

The midden heid literally refers to the top of a dunghill, but figuratively it can be used to indicate a person’s home territory or environment. A middenstead is the site of a midden or, figuratively, a person’s usual haunt or stamping ground.

Midden has brought us some expressive idioms. If you are described as either in the moon or the midden you fluctuate between two extremes of mood. Should you look at the moon till you fall in the midden you have let yourself be carried away by your dreams and ambitions until you are brought back to earth with a bump to face harsh reality. To marry a midden for its muck has nothing to do with hitching yourself to an unhygienic person, but means to marry someone for their money and disregard any other considerations.

I said above that midden in English is generally regarded as being archaic or dialectal. However, there is one notable exception. Midden has a specific archaeological sense which is still current. Often known as kitchen midden, this midden refers to the site of an old tip or dump for domestic waste, such as bone, fragments of pottery, shells, artefacts and so on, discarded by our ancestors of long ago at their settlements. Apparently, there is much to be learned about their lives, habits and diets from kitchen middens. I wonder what future archaeologists will make of landfill sites.


Picture: Apfel Fred

The word humph in English dictionaries is usually defined as an interjection indicating annoyance, dissatisfaction, disgust or doubt. I am not sure that I have actually ever heard anyone pronouncing the word as it is spelt. It usually comes out as a kind of grunt or growl.

In Scots, the word humph might easily come accompanied by a series of grunts because it means to carry around something heavy. Before the days when suitcases came equipped with handy little wheels, humphing your luggage around airports or railway stations was an all too common part of the holiday experience.

But we still humph overflowing bags of shopping from supermarket to car and car to house unless we are going by bus or on foot, in which case the humphing process is likely to be accompanied by even more grunts. Also fond parents are obliged to humph around their small children when they claim to be too tired to walk. It is strange how the children do not seem to be quite so small after half a mile or so of this activity.

The verb humph can also mean to move around with great difficulty because you are carrying a heavy or unwieldy load. Thus you might see pupils from the local school humphin up the road clutching the many bags that some of them seem to need these day, while somehow still leaving a hand free to clutch their mobile phones.

In origin, humph is a Scots form of English hump, as in a curvature of the back. In Scots, English hunched becomes humphed and hunch-backed becomes humph-backed or humphie-backit. Humph has given rise to a number of phrases, but you have to know whether you are coming or going when you use some of them.

The phrase to come up yir humph means to occur to you, to come into your head, as in: “He might meet us off the train if it comes up his humph.” However, the phrase gae up yir humph means to be beyond your powers of understanding or to be a mystery to you, as in: “Why she left sae [so] suddenly gaes [goes] up ma humph.” If you set up yir hump you get very angry and hostile, as in: “He really sets up ma hump when he starts bragging.”

If you are tired of someone’s company and want to be rid of them, you can use the fairly modern informal expression awa an run up ma humph. This is certainly more picturesque than “Get lost”. Even more picturesque is awa and cuddle my humph.

There is another Scots word humph, with the alternative spelling humf, which is unrelated to the one just described. This one may be derived from the English interjection that I started off with. It means to have or acquire an offensive smell or taste, as of something decaying or rotting lying forgotten at the back of your fridge. Of course your fridge may be devoid of such remains.

If something is giving off a horrible smell it can be described as humphed or humphy. They are more or less synonyms for mingin, meaning stinking, but they have not acquired its popular figurative uses. Probably for this reason, humphy has not achieved the export success that mingin has. Still, you never know what a bit of publicity might do.

Dour skies
Dour skies

Dour skies. Picture: Quinn Dombrowski

Many Scots nowadays are stay-at-homes at heart, not venturing forth much to other countries except for the odd business trip, weekend break or the almost mandatory two-week beach laze. It seems recently that even their holiday travel has been, curtailed thanks to the recession and cutbacks, and they are becoming staycationers (a very unattractive word).

Many Scots words also stay at home. Indeed they are even less likely to settle elsewhere than the people. However, just occasionally we find that one of these words has slipped off to foreign parts and has been adopted by the natives there. These parts often include the States, Canada, or Australia. Sometimes they include the area south of Watford. And it is to that area that the Scots word dour has spread. You will even find it in English dictionaries.

Dour is pronounced to rhyme with moor, although in the south I have sometimes heard it pronounced to rhyme with glower, doubtless a happy combination of words if you are a budding melancholic poet. Dour has been known in Scots since the 14th century, but it is of uncertain origin. However, it seems likely that it has connections with Latin durus, hard.

The word dour in England and elsewhere is often used with reference to Scots people, and not in a complimentary way. However enlightened modern civilisation has supposedly become, racial stereotyping is still alive and well, and living in a great many places. A common racial stereotype is the dour Scot. The drunken Scot is an even more common racial stereotype, but let us stick to one thing at a time.

Dour is an adjective of many parts – but, as far the stereotyped dour Scots is concerned, it means humourless and sullen. Smiles are rarely seen on the face of such a one. However, there are Scots who would say that this alleged lack of humour is a misinterpretation. Humour is not lacking at all, but takes the form of a subtle, dry wit that is beyond the comprehension and appreciation of those who prefer their humour in more obvious, laugh-a-minute, form.

Dour can also mean obstinate, stubborn or unyielding. If you are the kind of person who refuses to allow people to railroad you into things, then you will see yourself as a resolute person sticking to your guns, while others may describe you as dour.

Not only people can be described as dour. A task that is exceptionally difficult to carry out can also be so described. Thus an arduous job such as digging the garden or clearing the driveway after a very heavy snowstorm can be dubbed dour.

If someone or someone is reluctant or slow to do something, they can be referred to as dour. This use can cover a whole range of situations. School pupils can be described as dour if they are reluctant to settle down to their studies or if they have difficulty in learning. Fish can be described as dour if they have the sense to keep a low underwater profile and refuse to take the bait. A fire can be described as dour if it is slow to burn and does not produce instant warming flames.

Weather gets everywhere and it is not surprising that dour can also be applied to it. Dour skies are dark and threatening and a dour day is a gloomy, bleak one, the sort that makes us long for one that is simply dreich.

The dreaded cleg Picture: Silversyrpher

By Betty Kirkpatrick

It has been said frequently, by myself among others, that Scots words are often more descriptive than their English equivalents. Somehow, some of them seem to be better at conveying the spirit of the meaning.

Take scart, for example. It is the equivalent of English scratch but I think it suggests a sharper, more clawing action, so necessary when an itch is severe.

An itch in Scots is yeuk, pronounced yook, and with several alternative spellings such as yuke, youk and yuck. In Scotland we need a good, strong, descriptive verb to deal with an itch because at certain times of the year many of us are decidedly itchy – or yeukie, etc. This is not because we are unhygienic enough to suffer unduly from fleas or lice.

It is partly because of the presence in our country of the dreaded midge. A great deal of scarting is necessary to cope with the bites of this mini creature. You would think that we would become to immune to the biting of the midge after a lifetime spent enduring it, but not so. Then there is the even more dreaded cleg or horse-fly. Its bite tends to be itchy and sore at the same time. Scarting often makes things worse.

It is possible to escape the midge and the cleg by going to other climes, but we may well encounter more mosquitoes there. Mosquitoes seem to just love to settle on pale, delicate Celtic skin and suck the sweet Celtic blood. Probably we have several mosquito Michelin stars. Is this paranoia on my part? No, I don’t think so. I know many Celts who feel that they are particularly prone to mosquito attack, while tougher, more tanned skins go scot-free. Well actually in Scots this translates as scart-free or scart-hale.

Scart, probably originally in the form of skart, first appeared in Scots in the 14th century. It is derived from Middle English scrat, although the derivation of this is uncertain. One suggestion is that it may be Scandinavian in origin. Another is that the word imitates the sound of scratching – onomatopoeic, in fact.

Scart in the sense of drawing your nails or something sharp across your skin to stop it itching has various other derived meanings. Hens scart or scrape about the ground with their claws looking for food. Very hungry or very greedy people scart their bowls or plates in order to get the very last bits of food from them. Scart can also mean to scrape or accumulate things together in a heap, especially if you are of a miserly disposition. You can hastily scart or scribble a few lines on paper or scart a match.

Scart has also brought us some interesting phrases. Ah’ll gar you scart where it’s no yeukie means literally I’ll make you scratch where it’s not itchy. Figuratively it means I’ll make you regret that. To scart a gray pow [head] does not mean that you have nits, but that you are getting on a bit in years.

If you scart someone’s buttons you are delivering a challenge to a fight, often while drawing your fingers down their jacket buttons. So do not admire someone’s unusual or particularly attractive buttons in this way in case your gesture is misinterpreted and you find yourself having to put your fists up.

According to an old Scots proverb, biting and scarting is Scots fowk’s [folk’s] wooing. I knew it. We are just a bunch of old romantics really.

Shieldaig – a couthie holiday destination? <em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Shieldaig – a couthie holiday destination? Picture: Anne Burgess

By Betty Kirkpatrick

A friend was recently showing some foreign visitors round parts of northern Scotland and encountered the usual problem of finding somewhere to stay and eat out of season. She eventually found somewhere, commenting later “It was a bit couthie, but it was perfectly adequate and it had a great view of the loch”.

Knowing her well, I deduced from her comment that the accommodation was a good deal less sophisticated and trendy than she would have liked. The house was probably furbished with multi-coloured, lavishly patterned carpets and wallpaper which would have offended her minimalist taste.

Couthie as used by her was clearly not intended as a compliment, but this critical use is a fairly recent development. Couthie, when used of places, originally meant cosy or comfortable, or generally pleasant and agreeable. Indeed, it often still does. A couthie place with a view of a loch might be some travellers’ description of a perfect holiday location.

Couthie, which was a fairly late entrant into the Scots language, not making an appearance until the early 18th century, can also be used of people. A couthie host, for example, is one who is exceptionally friendly and sociable. If he or she extends a couthie welcome then it is a very warm one indeed. You are fortunate if one of your friends can rightly be described as couthie when you are in times of trouble, because it means that you have a sympathetic audience.

How did a word which is descriptive of such sterling qualities come to be used critically? Well, from being used as synonym for comfortable, it came to be a synonym for homely. Now a place described as homely is often regarded as somewhere warm, friendly and comfortable, but it can also be regarded as somewhere very simple or unpretentious and ordinary. Incidentally, the Americans go one further and use the word homely as a synonym for unattractive.

We now live in a world which is nothing if not pretentious. Being homely or ordinary is rarely regarded as an asset. In such an environment it is hardly surprising that couthie has lost some of its high-ground status and is now sometimes used critically.

Couthie may not always have the complimentary associations it once had, but it certainly has not reached the depths that the word uncouth has. Yet they are related, both having their origins in the Old English cuth, meaning known or familiar, which is derived from Old English cunnan, to know. Couthie is also related to Old Scots couth, meaning known or familiar.

Couthie’s change in meaning sometimes causes a degree of ambiguity. Is the reviewer describing folk music played by a local amateur band as couthie being complimentary or critical? I fear the latter is usually the case.

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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Skailt milk <em>Picture: Newtown grafitti</em>

Skailt milk Picture: Newtown grafitti

By Betty Kirkpatrick

When I think of kail (last week’s Scots offering), I think of skail. This is not because the words rhyme, as I am rarely tempted to try my hand at verse. You should be thankful for this.

No, skail is Scots for to spill and I have childhood memories of being given stern injunctions not to skail the kail. This was a most sensible – and, indeed, pain-saving – order because my mother’s soup was always scalding hot. A few drops of this spilled on the skin would probably have people nowadays rushing to A&E, but those were hardier days. We just watched the blisters form and got on with supping the soup.

Incidentally, this childhood experience of soup has left me with a disinclination to order soup in a restaurant. Too often it tastes unpleasantly tepid. Having developed an asbestos mouth and lips at an early age, soup has to be boiling hot to appeal to my taste-buds.

Skail has come to us through northern Middle English and is probably Scandinavian in origin, having connections with Old Norse skilja, meaning to separate or divide. It was once thought that skail might be connected with Gaelic sgaoil, to scatter, but this is now considered to be much less likely than the Scandinavian source.

Skail, of course, is not restricted to spilling soup. The verb can be used to refer to the accidental spillage of any liquid, or even non-liquids. Thus, milk can skail from a torn carton or clothes can skail from a suitcase which has burst open.

This spilling-out process can even apply to people. If you have put on a few inches since you last wore a particular garment, you might find yourself skailin it (or bursting it at the seams) as you try to ease yourself into it. When the damage to the seams has been done the garment can be said to be skailt or skelt.

Skail is a word of several meanings. It can be used to refer to people scattering or dispersing after attending a meeting of some kind or after having been together in a building. Church congregations or hordes of school children can be said to skail from their respective buildings. The buildings can also be said to skail as they become empty of their occupants.

Skail can also mean to cause a group of people to disperse or to put them to flight. So police breaking up a riot can be said to skail the rioters – well, only if they are north of the border, or relatively close to it.

Skail can mean to scatter things deliberately as well as to spill something accidentally. You can, for example, skail seeds if you are a keen gardener. If you are an even keener gardener you can skail manure across the ground to encourage the seeds to grow. Should you be more couch potato than gardener, you can always stay indoors and skail a few rumours over a cup of tea. But dinna skail 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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Kale salad <em>Picture: Salim Virji</em>

Kale salad Picture: Salim Virji

By Betty Kirkpatrick

I have just returned from a short trip to London where I happened to eat in various so-called gastropubs – I have some very upmarket friends. When browsing through the menus, I was surprised to see how many were offering dishes featuring kale. Of these, kale mash was the most popular, but kale also appeared as a common accompanying vegetable – perhaps it is the new peas – and even as the main ingredient of a savoury tart.

Clearly kale is now regarded as posh nosh. This seems odd to me as I am sure that I regarded it as being mainly animal fodder when I was a child. You must remember that I am stricken in years.

Those of you who have not undergone the kale culinary experience may not even know what it is. Kale is, in fact, a kind of cabbage with dark green curly leaves. According to one dictionary, it is distinguishable from some other cabbages by having no heart – shades of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

Kale, better known in Scots as kail and the equivalent of English cole, derived from Old English, was once a staple of the Scots diet. After all, we were a poor country and it did not face much competition. So central to the Scots diet was kail that at one point in the 19th century it came to mean also a meal in itself, often the main meal of the day.

Kail also came to be used of soup, originally one made with kail leaves, but later extended to soup made from any vegetables or even meat. That is my main childhood memory of kail, a generic word for soup. If you wanted to specify the kind of soup you could always prefix the word kail with the main ingredient, as leek kail.

Kail also appeared in a dish known as kail-kenny or kail-kennin, which consisted of potatoes and kail or cabbage mashed together. It is the equivalent of the Irish dish colcannon. Could it be the origin of the kale mash of gastropub fame?

The stalk of the kail plant is known either as a kail-stock or a kail-runt. These stocks or runts were the subject of an old Halloween tradition. A group of young people, sometimes blindfolded, were taken to a field after dark where they would pull kail- runts.

The shape of the runt they pulled was supposed to be an indication of the stature of their future spouse. Presumably everyone was hoping for a long and straight runt rather than a short and shrivelled one. Incidentally, a kail-runt can also be an insulting name for an old woman, an example of both sexism and ageism in one go.

A kailyard was originally used to refer to a place where kail was grown, then coming to mean a kitchen garden. The expression is, however, better known for its literary connection. The Kailyard school of writing was coined to refer to a group of Scottish writers, such as J M Barrie, who wrote about rural domestic life in Scotland at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, it was rather too sentimental for many tastes, certainly modern tastes, and it is often used as a distinctly unflattering designation.

Kail features in a number of rather vivid sayings. Of these, the most common is cauld kail het again, literally meaning cold soup or food reheated, and used to refer to something that you have heard over and over again until you are absolutely sick of it. The ramblings of politicians are often a case in point.

Hot soup or food is featured in get yir kail het, to get a severe scolding. Another hot kail expression is scaud yir lips in ither folk’s kail, meaning literally to scald your lips in other people’s soup and figuratively to interfere or meddle in the affairs of others.

Idiomatically, mak saut to yir kail is something that is getting more and more difficult to do in modern times. Saut is Scots for salt, but the expression means make a living. See what I mean?

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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'Ah doot we’re too late. The boat’s gone.' <em>Picture: Dr Julian Paren</em>

'Ah doot we’re too late. The boat’s gone.' Picture: Dr Julian Paren

By Betty Kirkpatrick

The talk at the bus stop the other day was, as it often is, about the weather. The conversation centred on the fact that, for once, the east of Scotland was enjoying a remarkably balmy winter’s day while the south of England was shivering in the cold and snow. Could this situation last, we all wondered?

Optimism is not in general a Scottish characteristic. Life, and sporting events in particular, has knocked it out of us. Better to assume the worst and then we will not be disappointed. So it was that at least two people in the bus said “I hae ma doots” – and they were right to have these. The weather clouded over shortly afterwards.

The Scots noun doot, which has the alternative forms dout and doubt, is pronounced to rhyme with soot whatever the spelling. “I hae ma doots” in Scots is the direct equivalent of English “I have my doubts”, used when someone is doubtful about the outcome of something. Likewise nae doot is the equivalent of no doubt, as in No doubt we’ll know soon / Nae doot we’ll ken soon.

Doot as a noun is the counterpart of English doubt, but the situation with regard to the verb is not so simple. Admittedly, the Scots verb can act as the direct equivalent of the English verb to doubt, meaning to have doubts about something or to think that something is untrue or unlikely, as in Ah doot / I doubt we’ll get there in time for the meeting, or as in:

I doot na whyles but thou may thieve;
What then, poor beastie? Poor beastie, thou maun live!

In these lines from To a Mouse by Robert Burns, the poet is telling the mouse that he does not doubt that it steals sometimes, but then the creature has to live.

However, there is more to the Scots verb than that. It commonly means to fear or suspect that something is the case, as in, Ah doot he’s deid (I fear he’s dead), or Ah doot we’re too late. The boat’s gone. Doot can also mean just to expect or rather think, as in He’s no here yet. I doot the traffic’s bad.

Scots doot and English doubt are both derived from Middle English doute. This has its origins in Old French douter, to fear, a descendant of Latin dubitare, to waver, to be uncertain.

The noun doot has given rise to dooter, dootfu and dootless, equivalent to English doubter, doubtful and doubtless and used in the same way as these. Dootsome, with the alternative spelling dootsum, is also a derivative of doot and has several meanings, all suggesting a degree of uncertainty. These include ambiguous, uncertain in outcome, undecided in opinion or risky.

There is a Scots noun dout or dowt that has nothing to do with uncertainty and it is pronounced to rhyme with English doubt. It means a cigarette end and has no connection with doot or doubt. Instead, it may well be derived from the verb dout, an English dialect word meaning to extinguish a fire. No doubt you will have seen a sea of these douts littering the pavement outside pubs, whatever the weather.

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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