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How to amuse friends and bamboozle people without even knowing it – reflections of a Scot down south

When people ask where I am from, the answer “Scotland” is not what they are expecting – that much is evident from my accent, which I haven’t lost after 14 years down south. For the most part, people find it easy enough to understand me – my Scots brogue isn’t all that impenetrable. Yet on occasion, I get looks of bewilderment from friends and colleagues when I say something that seems perfectly normal to me.

Before I go any further, I should say that what follows is my own personal experience, and merely the tip of the iceberg. I am bound to have missed out some gems. Some of the words are also used outside of Scotland (particularly in Northern Ireland and the north of England), but I have chosen words which would be understandable to most Scots, whereas I don’t think that would be the case throughout England.

What do you mean I’ll get a row?

I’m not necessarily talking about Scots words here, although some may well be. I’m not well-versed in the Doric or ­Lallans, and I would struggle with a book of Scots poetry just as much as the next person.  I’m talking about words or turns of phrase that have marked me out as not being from round here, often without me knowing. Take the following as an example. A friend’s young daughter insisted that she should be allowed to do something or other. Not wanting to be the one to tell her this was a bad idea, I said “Well, you better check with your dad. I don’t want you to get a row”. Instead of going to get parental approval, she said to me “What’s a row?”.

As it turned out, row meaning a reprimand is not exclusively used by Scots, but it does seem to be non-standard elsewhere, whereas in Scotland, I’d argue it is verging on core vocabulary.

Or consider the following. You are on holiday somewhere and get chatting to someone on the beach. They ask “where do you stay?”. Depending on whether you are from north of the border or not, your answer might be “The Plage Hotel” or “Ormskirk” (other place names and hotels are available). To a Scot, “where do you stay” means “where do you live” rather than “where will you be sleeping this evening”. It seems such a simple thing, but it can and often does cause confusion.

It’s more than hoots mon and och aye the noo

Let me state now that I know of no Scottish person who has ever said “och aye the noo”. I’ll hold my hands up to och. I remember once someone asking me what och meant, and my answer was “och, it’s hard to say really” (this was before I relied on defining words to make my living, needless to say). But never have I said “och aye the noo” or “hoots mon”.

Of course there are words that I will employ with my tongue firmly in my cheek, as I know they will be unfamiliar.

  • Let me retake the photograph, you look a bit glaikit
  • You better change your shirt, that’s one mawkit
  • You’ve made a right bauchle of that
  • Oooh, that lemonade is a bit wersh
  • Hey, bawheid, hurry up
  • You had such a beamer when he asked you to dance
  • I was black-affronted when he called round  - the house is such a coup
  • My dad wanted to be a scaffie when he was younger
  • She’s really going her dinger about that article
  • After I finished my 5km run, my feet were louping

These roughly translate as:

  • You look a bit foolish
  • That one is very dirty
  • You’ve bungled that task
  • That lemonade tastes a bit sour
  • Hey, stupid, hurry up (it’s a reasonably affectionate term of abuse)
  • You blushed when he asked you to dance
  • I was embarrassed when he called  round as the house is very untidy
  • My dad wanted to be a binman when he was younger
  • She’s really venting her anger about that article
  • My feet were very sore

It’s fair to say, with the exception of louping, which was actually a perfect description of how my feet were feeling after having run 5km in new trainers (or even gutties), I probably wouldn’t use any of these words in normal everyday speech. Gutties proved a particularly troublesome word when I was at school. It screams out for a glottal stop, otherwise, heaven forfend, you might sound posh. But glottal stops tended not to go down to well with my teachers so it was best to avoid.

Actually, I’m a Sassenach too

Many in Scotland will jocularly refer to the English as Sassenachs, yet as a Lowlander this would apply to me too. Etymologically, Sassenach comes from the Gaelic word Sasunnach which was applied to English-speaking inhabitants of Scotland, as well as to the English. Demonstrating that we can give as good as we get, the word teuchter is applied, in kind, by Central Belters to the Highlanders, particularly those seen as being countrified in some way. Heuchter-teuchter, as well as being something of a tongue-twister, is reserved to describe those things which seem stereotypically Scottish (think tartan, think bagpipes, think ceilidhs).

But I digress. All of the terms above sound unusual and it is unlikely anyone would mistake them for standard English. Yet there are also plenty of words, I have found, that sound like they have been lifted straight out of standard English, but in fact have set me apart in much the same way as using any of the more marked terms. Some have currency outwith (do you see what I did  there) Scotland, where they seem to be marked as dialectal, yet I would contend that to a Scot, they wouldn’t be seen as anything other than normal vocabulary, certainly nowadays. At various times in my life, I have:

  • called someone a tube
  • screamed when I saw a slater
  • sympathised when someone was bitten by a cleg
  • described a picture as squint
  • expressed excitement when the shows come to town
  • remarked that someone was a bit nippy
  • gone down a chute backwards

Rest assured, I am not calling someone a television, screaming at innocent tradesmen, casting aspersions on British politicians, assuming that pictures have some kind of eye condition, taking in multiple musicals, saying that someone feels cold or doing something incomprehensible with a parachute. Rather I am:

  • calling someone an idiot
  • screaming in terror at a woodlouse
  • sympathising at a horsefly bite
  • describing said picture as a bit uneven
  • being excited at the fair coming to town
  • noticing that someone is a little on the irritable side
  • playing on a slide in the park

Bring me some fizzy pop and swede

The only times I can genuinely recall actual breakdown in communication happening is with foodstuffs. When this particular Scot is thirsty and enquires “do you have any juice”, the last thing she expects is for you to present her with a glass of liquid that had been squeezed from a fruit. If I had wanted that, then clearly I would have specified apple juice or orange juice, etc etc. No no, what I am expecting is some kind of fizzy pop, and yes I realise that is this hardly specific either. Spare a thought for a person with a Glaswegian guest who might ask if they could have some ginger. Ginger ale? Ginger beer? Ginger the aromatic root? No, it’s that carbonated soft drink again.

Vegetable accompaniments can also perplex. One time when out shopping, I said ah, we need a turnip”. My companion nodded and headed straight for, well, the turnips. “No no,” I said, “turnip” while picking up a nice-sized swede. Which I will admit is confusing. If a turnip is a swede, then what is a turnip? Even after numerous heated conversations in the pub, I’m still not sure.

File under unco

And then there are those which just seem plain strange. Maybe they are peculiar to my family and our close friends – again, these aren’t words I would use, but they are to be heard fairly frequently when I make the trip back to the motherland. Someone who has proved fortunate in some way is described as spawny although it never seems to be expressed in a positive way, but rather always along the lines of “the spawny get has done it again”; something which is homespun in a naff way is ponky (I assume this is how it is spelled, but I don’t think I have ever seen it written down, and I am not sure anyone outside a radius of 10 miles from my parents’ house has ever uttered this word). And then my particular favourite – winching. If you are winching, it means you are stepping out with another person, romantically involved, if you will. However, it can also mean snogging. I use the word advisedly. Kissing would simply not do the action justice – it requires the exuberance and amorousness that snogging describes. So you can be winching, but not actually winching, but normally if you are winching, you will be winching as well. In a fankle (a muddle or state of confusion)? You  should be.

Poor, paw, and pour

I leave you with poor, paw, and pour. For a Scot (or perhaps more accurately, someone with a Scottish accent), these words are all pronounced quite differently. This is generally not the case with an English accent. Try it and amaze your friends.