Words at Play

10 Indispensable Scottish Words

Plus 4 more ways to say 'one for the road'


Definition: the buttocks

When one is engaged in dinner party conversation, one occasionally hears another guest make some assertion about the English language, such as “there is no word which rhymes with purple.” The polite response to such a statement is to nod your head and exclaim something along the lines of “What an interesting and well-learned fellow you are! Your parents must be quite proud.” If you are not a polite person, you might instead point out that there are not one, but two words in the Scottish dialect of English which rhyme with purple: curple (which may refer to “a leather loop passing under a horse’s tail and buckled to the saddle” or to the buttocks of a horse or other creature) and hirple (“to walk with a limp”).

I’m afraid that John Durie has cracked his curple, at least his mouth is closed.
—David Hume (letter to James Carmichael, 15 Mar. 1585), in The Miscellany of the Wodrow Society, 1844

Definition: having an unfriendly disposition

There is, if truth be told, no shortage of common English words with which to describe this type of character. You may choose from splenetic, cantankerous, surly, irascible, or any one of dozens of others, all of which serve much the same purpose. So why should you learn a new synonym, one that is unlikely to be understood by most people outside of the northern area of Great Britain? Because you will never stop meeting people with unfriendly dispositions, and so can never have too many words with which to describe them.

Ill-willie, which comes from the Scots dialect of Middle English was formed by the ingenious method of adding an -ie to the existing ill-will. It should not be confused with the word from the Older Scots language, evil-willy, which means “malevolent, wishing harm or evil to others.”

Mony a time when I hae come hame ower late, and found the West Port steekit, and the waiter ill-willy, I have garr’d the sexton of Saint Cuthbert’s calf ward serve me for my quarters.
—Walter Scott, The Fortune of Nigel, 1822

Definition: an insignificant person

Ablach is a word with a somewhat gory etymology. The earliest use of the word was in reference to a mangled carcass. It also has been used, according to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, to refer to “a body not necessarily dead but maimed or reduced to a pitiable condition.” Since the late 19th century, ablach has been used in Scotland to refer to an insignificant person, although it also is employed in a playful manner to describe a child.

Say anither wird against ‘s, ye ablach, an’ I’ll gi’e ye a blinter o’ the chafts.
Aberdeen Journal (Aberdeen, Scotland), 26 Dec. 1894

Definition: squabble, brawl, uproar

There have been several theories regarding the origin of collieshangie, and no one appears to be certain about any of them. Some have suggested that it comes from the practice of tying a piece of wood (a shangie) to the tail of a dog (a collie), while others have posited that the word comes from a Gaelic word for hubbub. Happily, you do not have to know exactly where a word comes from in order to enjoy its use, and collieshangie is a very enjoyable word. It rolls off the tongue and confuses most people with whom you speak, and what more can you ask a word to do?

Or how the collieshangie works
Atween the Russians and the Turks
Or if the Swede, before he halt,
Would play anither Charles the Twalt....
—Robert Burns, The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, 1834

Definition: a parting drink

If you are a somewhat bibulous sort, and enjoy taking a parting drink, then you will be relieved to know that there is a word for this. And if you are an exceptionally bibulous sort, and enjoy taking more than a single parting drink, you will be relieved to know that the English language, in its synonymic glory, has provided us with multiple words for this. In addition to the bonailie there is the doch-an-dorrach (from the Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic deoch an doruis, meaning “drink of the door”), grace cup, one for the road, and also stirrup cup.

There were, at one time, numerous drinking usages connected with departures. We need only notice the bonalie (Fr. bon allez), or, as it is sometimes called, a foy (Fr. voie), a festive drinking at the away-going of servants or of persons in a still higher degree, once common in the Lowlands of Scotland … For the moral and physical evils connected with drinking usages, and the means taken to redress them, we refer to the article TEMPERANCE.
Chambers's Encyclopædia, 1870

Definition: a boorish old man

Although we at Merriam-Webster are firm believers in the notion that one should have respect for one’s elders, we must also record with diligence the language use of others who may not share this sentiment. And we note with regret that in Scottish and Irish use there exists a word for a type of older man who is perhaps not deserving of respect. One such man is a bodach (which may also carry the meaning of “goblin” or "bugaboo").

When the early harvest came, it required assiduous attention, and careful planning, and an efficient Bureau of Information on the comings and goings of the enemy—the orchard-owners—else yourself and comrades ran the risk of being cheated of your yearly tribute, while the overfed Bodachs of the valley might actually enjoy their own fruit.
—Seamus MacManus, Red Book Magazine, Jul. 1911

Definition: rude gossip

It is always pleasing to discover that there is a word for a thing you’ve always thought there should be a word for; a degree of linguistic specificity that allows you to describe a concept with brevity and precision. Nashgab is one such word, as it describes not only gossip, but gossip of a lower level than idle chitchat. The word comes from the Scots words for “impertinence” (nash) and “mouth” (gab). In addition to “rude gossip,” nashgab may be used to refer to “an impertinent oaf.”

They hae coost up my kindred to Rob to me already — set up their nashgabs.
—Walter Scott, Rob Roy, 1817

Definition: disorder, agitation

Carfuffle is thought to be the older version of the word kerfuffle, although it is not the earliest version of this word indicating disturbance and fuss. The word fuffle (“to become disheveled or mussed up”) has been in use in Scottish English since the 16th century. Curfuffle has been around since the 16th century as well, and carfuffle began seeing use in the 19th century. The modern variant, kerfuffle, does not appear to have entered use until the 20th century.

Ye maun ken I was at the shirra’s the day; for, God help me, I gang a’ gates like the troubled spirit, and wha suld come whirling there in a post-chaise but Monkbarns in an unco carfuffle—now it’s no a little thing that will make his honour take a chaise and post-horse twa days rinnin’.
—Walter Scott, The Antiquary, 1816

Definition: a stout well-built person

Although the definition we provide for gurk does contain the word “well-built,” we should caution, before you use this word as a term of endearment, that some may view this phrasing as a touch euphemistic, and that our view of whether “stout” is a pleasing attribute may have changed over the past two hundred or so years.

A gawsie gurk, wi’ phiz o’ yellow,
In youthood’s sappy bud,
Nae twa there wad ha gart him wallow,
Wi’ fair play i’ the mud,
On’s back that day.
—John Skinner, Amusements of Leisure Hours, 1809

Beflum
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Definition: to deceive, especially by flattery

The words flummox (“to confuse”) and beflum may look similar, but it is unlikely that they are related. Beflum should not be confused with another fine Scottish word dealing with flattery, which is the somewhat less euphonious word fleech. If you beflum someone you are deceiving that person, whereas if you fleech them you are merely coaxing or wheedling.

”Troth,” replied the nobleman, laughing, “Sandy beflum’d the cook, and gar’d her trow he was dying for love of her.”
The Old Earl and His Young Wife, 1841




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