Friday, 30 January 2009

'Tis the season to be joco

January 25th was the birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most renowned poet, and it was celebrated with the customary ‘Burns suppers’ of haggis, whisky, and lively conversation. This year there was unprecedented revelry, as the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Bard of Alloway is being commemorated by a special ‘year of Homecoming’ in Scotland.

The legend of Burns’s personality and lifestyle – and the image that most readily springs to mind is that of a rather rakish ‘ladies’ man’ – sometimes detracts from the value of his poetry. It can’t be denied that through his poetry, Burns did much to preserve the idioms and vocabulary of Scots. Very many people in Scotland, whether or not they are particularly familiar with Scots language, will be well acquainted with words like sonsie
and sleekit from Burns’s works ‘Address to a Haggis’ and ‘To a Mouse’.

Not all of the words that we can identify as Scottish are known to every Scot, given the different derivations and regional variation in usage of these words. Cailleach
(an old woman) and clachan (a small village) are Gaelic in origin, while quine (a girl) comes from the Doric of North-east Scotland. But every Scot will know some distinctively Scottish words that express an idea succinctly and are very satisfying to say, for example fouter (pronounced ‘footer’, meaning to mess around aimlessly), wabbit (tired out), capernoity (irritable or giddy) and, of course, clishmaclaver.

Many of the words that Scots like best of all are those that have a unique meaning in the English spoken here in Scotland. If a Scot says he is ‘getting the messages’, he doesn’t mean that he is receiving communications from the afterlife, he just means he is going for his shopping. If you ‘uplift’ someone or something, you don’t have to elevate them, but you might collect them from somewhere. And one which bemuses many: if you ‘clap’ a dog, you are not abusing the poor animal or even giving it a round of applause, you are simply giving it a friendly pat. It is such differences in usage that make the English language so rich; all its subtleties would take more than one lifetime to learn.

Mary O'Neill

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