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2008: A Year for Celebration!

The year 2008 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of a pivotal work of Scots lexicography: John Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language was first published in two volumes in 1808, with its two-volume Supplement following in 1825. Lists of Scots words had been compiled before, but Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary was the first complete dictionary of Scots language. Printed versions of the dictionary are still available, and you can now access the 1808 edition at the Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language website edited by Susan Rennie.

Jamieson was born in Glasgow in 1759 and studied at Glasgow University, graduating in 1789. He attended some further classes at the University of Edinburgh before moving to Forfar to become the minister of the Secession Kirk there. Soon after, his friend George Dempster of Dunnichen introduced him to Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, professor of Antiquities at the University of Copenhagen. Thorkelin persuaded Jamieson that Scots words are not mere corruptions of English and suggested to him that Scots is derived from Old Norse rather than Old English. Jamieson perhaps took the suggestion at face value a little too readily but, as a result of this conversation, he embarked on the compilation of his remarkable dictionary which was an inspiration, not only for later lexicographers of Scots, but also for Sir James Murray, the founding father of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Scotland has long been a leader in the field. As early as 1595, Alexander Duncan glossed his Latin grammar book with definitions in Scots and two years later John Skene produced De Verborum Significatione to explain some difficult words found in the Regiam Majestatem (the old laws of Scotland), and other legal terms. He makes some attempt to give the origin of words, describing them as Irish or from Italian, auld French or auld Saxon, often with little or no foundation, but he does recognise the problems that have always beset etymologists, as he demonstrates in: 'Galness...ane kind of medis, assithment or satisfaction for slauchter. Of the quhilk work I findna mention in onie vther place or law of vther cuntries.'

But a change was soon to take place. By the second half of the eighteenth century, it was becoming necessary in Scotland to provide glossaries in English of texts originally written in Scots. Burns supplied a glossary for the Kilmarnock edition and, worse, publications on how to recognise Scotticisms and eradicate them began to appear. Jamieson himself considered Scots as nothing more than bad English until Thorkelin persuaded him otherwise and, although Jamieson passionately argues the case for Scots as a separate language from English, the 'bad English' label is proving a very stubborn one to overcome.

In the Dedication of the Supplement (1825) Jamieson addresses King George IV:

In this work which I have the honour of presenting to YOUR MAJESTY, I have exerted myself to the utmost to explain, elucidate and trace to its sources, that ancient and energetic language which was spoken by YOUR MAJESTY'S Illustrious Ancestors for so many ages, and in which not only the Deeds of their Councils, but the Acts of the Parliaments they held, were recorded, and still exist...
The 1808 edition having been inscribed to the Prince of Wales, as he then was, his 'Royal Grace and Munificence'seems to have been well pleased.

Building on the work begun by Jamieson, the Scottish National Dictionary (SND) and A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) include well researched etymologies and, like Jamieson's etymologies, these need to be constantly reviewed in the light of ongoing research. Like Jamieson's Dictionary, SND and DOST provide copious illustrative quotations and these are perhaps the greatest delight in dictionaries of this nature. From Jamieson's preface, we have a useful caveat for all researchers; he confesses that, not having any thought of publication in mind, he sometimes noted down only the author and not the work from which the quotation was taken! However, his immense scholarship is evident from the breadth and depth of material in the 'List of Manuscripts, Books or Editions' used in compiling the dictionary. The later dictionaries have also followed Jamieson's lead by providing additional information about the Scots language. Although Jamieson's 'A Dissertation on the Origin of the Scottish Language' is, in places, contrary to current thinking, it remains highly readable and he makes some excellent points and some fascinating observations.

With no small debt to Jamieson, we now have a lexicographical record of the Scots language that might be the envy of many a minority or lesser used language but the pattern set in the eighteenth century continues; definitions are given in English and we are still in the anomalous situation of lacking a Scots-Scots dictionary! Also, Jamieson, in the interests of time and space, did not cover the huge part of the Scots lexicon which is shared with English and, although DOST aims to be inclusive, the SND records only words, forms or usage which differ from English (and it still fills ten volumes). We still lack a complete modern Scots dictionary which includes the shared terms. There is plenty to be done in the field of Scots lexicography.

In addition to the important work of the dictionary, Jamieson left his mark in other ways. He was a prolific writer and editor. In 1797, he moved to Edinburgh to become minister of the Anti-Burgher Church in Nicholson Street and he played a major part in reconciling the New Lichts of Burghers and Antiburghers as the United Secession Church (see the Concise Scots Dictionary p.820). He and his wife Charlotte had 17 children, of whom only three survived. He died in Edinburgh in 1838.