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Scots word

Slaister n. and v. work messily


The Scots words which describe making a mess in a variety of ways are popular with community groups visited by Scottish Language Dictionaries. These include the word slaister (you may use slester, slestir, sleester, slister, sclyster or scloister) which generally means to work messily and usually ineffectively. You might have been tempted to use this word to describe the joy and mess made by very young children when they are being creative, especially if there is liquid involved. It is used in many parts of Scotland. In the Dictionary of the Scots Language there is a quotation from R.L. Stevenson's Catriona (1893) which fits this context: "Slestering and scrubbing at the very stones upon the public highway". J. K. Annand also uses it to good effect in Sing it Aince for Pleisure (1965):

Seekin worms, seekin grubs,
Slaisterin in the clarty dubs.
Mud or water is often involved, sometimes enough to reach up to your knees in ways similar to those described in the John o' Groat Journal (Nov 1932): "Ye've been sleesterin' aboot wi' 'is weet day til yir gutter til 'e knees".

The disgust felt about messy eating is well captured by using the word. The compound slaister-kyte is recorded around 1750 in R. Chambers' Traditions of Edinburgh (1825): "A wheen puir slaister-kytes". In the Vale of Urr Verses MS (1880), the repulsion is clear: "They slaister and eat till they scarcely can sit".

It is often used to convey ideas of splashing as indicated in the Ramble of John Jorum and his friends to Roslin (1813) by 'Edinias' [David Tough]: "Wi' the oil bottle she slaister'd it weel". People should certainly heed the good advice given in J. Bathgate's Aunt Janet's Legacy (1894): "Dinna slaister the entry haddin' folk cairryin' in shairn on their feet".

Those who ply their trade as a painter and decorator seem to be maligned when associated with this word as the quotation from S.R. Crockett in Rose of the Wilderness (1911) illustrates: "He called them [house painters] 'puir craitures — mere slaisterers o' coloured dirt.'" In Scott's St. Ronan's Well (1823) aspersions are cast: "Are ye at the painting trade yet? an unco slaister ye used to make with it lang syne".

Food which is not very appealing can be called 'slaister'. In D. MacLagan’s description in Nugae Canorae Medicae (1873):

Labster-sauce wi' saumon
Wae's me that sic a slaister suid
Gang into mortal maw, man.
D. Willox in his Poems and Sketches (1898) is disgusted with the fare on offer: "Tae say that ye wad throw awa' aboot four an' sixpence, or four an' sevenpence, on a lot o' slisters!"

The adjective slaistery can be used in an agricultural context too with a specific meaning as is found in The Orcadian (1930): "Slaistery was a word applied to wet slimy oats, or other stuff in a wet hairst-time". The word slaister can be used generally for a botch, bungle or unskilful work as is shown in this quotation from Orkney in 1950: "What a slester yir makin' o' dain' that". You can hear the frustration behind the comment collected from the Dumfries area (1953) which reflects an experience we may all have had: "A richt slaister o' a day".

You may well have heard the word slaister applied to a person too. In the Scotsman (26 July 1954): "He maladroitly spilled his tea on the glistening tablecloth, and was promptly but not unkindly called a wee slaister" and from 14th Dec 2001:

It's 'The Rudest Men In Scotland', dressed by GQ magazine. But appearances can be deceptive, and Kiernan is soon picking the raisins out of the BBC Scotland scones and spilling his coffee everywhere — he's a right slaister.

The origin of the word seems uncertain and it is suggested in the Dictionary of the Scots Language that it might have been altered under the influence of the word plaister. There is a suggestion that it relates to Scandinavian words such as the Swedish word for sweets or a tit-bit sliske or sliskig which means over-luxurious food. The Danish word sleske or sleste means to cajole, fawn or to be a lickspittle. The Danish word slesk means unctuous or ingratiating. The Old Danish word sleske means to creep or slink.

If you still use the word or have used it in a slightly different way in your area, please let us know. We would love to hear from painters and decorators. You can look at the full entry online at www.dsl.ac.uk.

Elaine Webster