Home» Publications» SLD Newsletter» Newsletter Autumn 2010» Scots word: pernicketie

Scots word

pernicketie adj., adv. and n. extremely fastidious, very precise, obsessed by detail, fussy, niggling, over-scrupulous


Would you mind being described as pernicketie? Probably all those working with dictionaries would be delighted to be described in this way if it is defined as showing determination for accuracy and for work that is meticulous. In 1956 the People’s Journal (8 Dec) lamented the loss of such care in the workplace: 'Naebody seems tae hae the same pride in their wark an' naebody bathers aboot bein' pernickity.'

The word has been recorded with different spellings such as pernickety or prignickitie too. With the addition of a suffix, it can be used as a noun as illustrated in 1900 in The Spectator (15 Dec), where it is considered to be a desirable characteristic: 'It behoves every Minister to be careful to the point of fastidiousness, or, if you will, pernickittiness.'

It can however mean over-zealous and can have more pejorative overtones. We might not want to be associated with these characteristics after all. It can mean bad-tempered and touchy or extremely hard to please, as outlined in the Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL). These more critical aspects of the word are illustrated in this quote from Sarah Tytler’s novel Mrs Carmichael’s Goddesses (1898): 'You cannot believe that I lifted my hand to a purse-proud pirnickitie auld cadger like auld Powrie.'

A quotation from James Brown’s The Round Table Club (1873) shows frustration with a character’s 'pick-nickerties': 'There's nae eese for ony o' yer niceties or pick-nickerties here, comfort's afore ceremonie.' We can imagine the annoying characteristics of the gentleman mentioned in Mrs. C.I. Johnstone’s Elizabeth de Bruce (1827): '[He] acquired the not less significant, and more appropriate title of Auld Pernickitie.' We might want to consider whether we would be happy with a similar title!

In the adverbial function it seems to be undesirable too as mentioned in A.G. Murdoch’s Scotch Readings (1889): 'Ye're no to be perneckety modest, an' set up an affronted refusal.'

The origins are uncertain. Per is an intensifier and the word is perhaps a conflation of finicky, finical and particular. The word has entered standard English from Scots.

You might prefer to be called perjink. This can also be used as an adjective, an adverb or a noun, and the first definition given in the Dictionary of the Scots Language is 'trim, neat, well-turned-out, smart in appearance'. R.L. Stevenson uses it in this sense in his poem 'To Charles Baxter' (New Poems, 1918) when he uses the word to mean dapper and respectable, in stark contrast to the drunken character he is describing in the poem:

An' day an' nicht, frae daw to daw,
Dink an' perjink, an doucely braw

George Blake in his novel Paper Money (1928) also uses it to apply to people: 'She was slender and quick and neat: perjink, as the good Scots word has it.'

It can also apply to places as reported in the Banffshire Journal (1909): 'The hoose is jist a perfect pictur' an' a'thing aboot the place that clean and perjink.'

Perjink like pernicketie has the sense of attention to detail and is defined as 'Exact, precise, scrupulously careful, minutely accurate, fussy, finicking' (DSL). Ian Maclaren uses it in this way in Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (1894): 'He wasna maybe sae shairp at the elements as this pirjinct body we hae noo.' The adverb perjinctly is used in The Lyon in Mourning (1775): 'But how came you not to observe the address I gave you literally and perjinkly?'

Like pernicketie, perjink can have a more pejorative sense, meaning prim, strait-laced, or somewhat priggish. It is used in this way by Ruskin in Praeterita II (1887): 'She had always what my mother called "perjinketty" ways, which made her typically an old maid in her later years.' It is used with venom in Swatches o Hamespun (1924): 'A gey perjink aul ramrod o' a wife.'

There is a suggestion that having children may mean compromising your standards and leaving an eye for detail behind, as indicated in the February 1942 edition of Scots Magazine: 'If you had tae luik efter five weans ye wouldnae be sae perjink!'

High expectations can put pressure on people, particularly the young, as mentioned in Fraser’s Magazine (July 1835): 'The puir young creatures that ye hae worried to a harassment wi' your auld maids' perjinks.'

Susan Rennie used the word too in a thoroughly modern context when she introduces young children to the word in her delightful sci-fi adventure story Kat and Doug on Planet Perjink (2002).

The importance of good behaviour particularly in social situations is well summed up by the phrase 'To be on one’s perjinks'.

The per in perjink in a way similar to pernicketie is an intensive. The second part of perjink was probably influenced by words of similar meaning such as dink, gim, jimp, jinsh and jink which have definitions in the Scottish National Dictionary (SND) relating to being neat, spruce and dainty.

You might enjoy reflecting on your own preferred way of working and whether you would like to called pernicketie or perjink. Be sure to visit the Dictionary of the Scots Language for more information on pernicketie or perjink and any other Scots words used in this article.