I am taught by towels

How have I learned Scottish phrases? Let’s say I soak up knowledge. 

Jacob Turcotte

It’s impressive how educational hand-drying the dishes can be.

Almost without knowing it, one may absorb a range of more or less useful information as the cutlery gets drier and the dishcloth damper.

I am thinking in particular of two literary dish towels that have insinuated themselves into our collection of domestic accouterments. They are headed “A Celebration of the Scots Language.” These informative towels are clearly aimed at me as the Sassenach (or English) half of this house’s inhabitants. From them one may learn the meaning of such helpful phrases as “it’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht” and such singular words as “fankle,” “hoaching,” “stramash,” and “couthie,” not to mention “bourach” and “blether.”

I wonder how I got by before I knew any of these expressive Scottish words. I can’t enter into the scholarly debate as to whether Scottish is a language or a dialect, but living in Scotland I enjoy the words and phrases that have become part of my occasional conversation.

There were two early indications that I had crossed a linguistic line into a different country. The first was in a lumber yard. A man high on an extension ladder suddenly called down, “Hey Jimmy!” I looked about helpfully for anyone called Jimmy, but then it dawned on me that he was addressing me. I forget why he was calling to me, but I felt oddly honored.

The other occasion involved sheepdogs. I was preparing an article about a farmer who trained sheepdogs. He was explaining how the young ones learn by copying their elders. “They watch – ken – as the older dogs work – ken – and imitate their actions – ken.” I wondered why the dogs were all called “Ken.” It was only later that someone explained that “ken” was short for “D’ye ken?” – or “You know?”

My better half now and then employs vernacular Scottish as if it is perfectly natural. She, for instance, introduced me to the word “oose.” It is a close relative of a word of similar meaning, “stoor.” A useful website (piningforthewest.co.uk) explains: “Stoor is dust and general muck, and rhymes with ‘sure.’ Oose is dust which is so thick it’s positively furry.” It rhymes with “moose.” 

Strangely, these two words are not featured on our dish towels, but they do appear in several corners of the internet. An oose variant, “oosse,” shows up in a favorite lighthearted, wordily inventive book I often refer to. It is by Alastair Reid (a Scot) and illustrated by Ben Shahn. It’s called “Ounce Dice Trice.” Mr. Reid says: “Oosse is the airy furry stuff that ultimately gathers under beds.... It is also called trilbies, kittens or dust bunnies.”

Oose and stoor seem to me to be unmistakably Scottish, partly because of the sound made when you say them. This is even truer of “dreich.” (pronounced “dreech,” with a soft ending). It describes the too frequent state of Scottish weather: misty, gray, drizzly, and bleak.

But not all Scottish words are onomatopoeic. “Braw,” for instance, already mentioned as a description of moonlight, does not in the least mean raw or rough. On the contrary, it means fine or splendid. And “couthie” sounds a bit coarse, but it signifies cozy or comfortable.

We have a French friend who has been in Scotland for many years. He is particularly taken with our two hens. “How are my girls?” he asks on the phone. When he visits he can be overheard having couthie conversations with them. He has carried out numerous repairs to the large netted enclosure in which these characters live. One time he told me what he had been doing and added that the brown hen had been giving him “laldie.” Scottish words spoken with a French accent carry a considerable charm. “Laldie,” in this context, might be taken to mean that the hen was giving him a vigorous telling off. And while we are on the subject of chickens, there is a Scotticism that is fading out, presumably for being politically incorrect. It is an affectionate term used by a man when addressing a woman, as in “How are you doing, hen?” In different parts of the world, equivalents are “dear,” “love,” “honey,” or even “duck.” 

Which brings me back to the dish towel texts:  “Fankle” means a tangle;  “hoach­ing” is overcrowded; “stramash” means an uproar; “bourach” is a small mound; and “blether” – well, a blether is a person who chatters incessantly, not unlike the author of this essay.

So I’d better stop. But not without first wishing you a long and healthy life in one of the most amiable Scottish phrases: “Lang may yer lum reek.”*

*The sentiment is “May you never lack fuel for your fire.” Literally, it’s “Long may your chimney smoke.”

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