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Travellers and Tissues

Jess Smith is a traveller and writer who has penned several autobiographical volumes chronicling her childhood and young adulthood experiences travelling the countryside.

Whilst reading her book Tears for a Tinker1 I came across the word tushni. As someone with a lifelong interest in the language of Gypsies and Travellers, it puzzled me because itís something I had never come across before. I checked the glossary at the back of the book, which gave the explanation 'tushni: scraps of hand-made lace'. I realized this word required serious detective work, yet none of my usual sources for Gypsy and Traveller material contained tushni or anything remotely similar.

However, when working on the revision of the Concise Scots Dictionary my first port of call for checking is the Dictionary of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk) and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Having exhausted the more likely resources, I searched for tushni or anything similar in the dictionaries, and uncovered a Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) entry tische n, meaning 'a rich or fine kind of cloth, a garment made of this' and also 'a band, ribbon, girdle or belt of such stuff'. The word is first attested in the early fifteenth century as tissew, but subsequently as tuscheis of trast silk c1450-52, a silkin dun tuscha of siluer in 1488, and A siluer belt with a red tusche in 1522. This led me to the related OED entry tissue n, 'A rich kind of cloth... applied to various rich or fine stuffs of delicate or gauzy texture... any woven fabric or stuff', first recorded in the late fourteenth century, which also notes that the Scots forms are tusche, tuscha.

It seems very likely that tushni must be related to, and possibly evolved out of Older Scots tusche, tuscha, and that in the langauge of the Travellers the meaning has contracted from fine woven cloth in general to scraps of lace in particular. In English and Scots more generally, the word evolved in a different direction, into tissue 'fine paper, a paper handkerchief' (see the Scottish National Dictionary tishie n).

On closer examination of other examples of the Gypsy language with 'ni' or 'nie' endings I have discovered similar patterns emerging. For example Walter Simson, who made records of the speech of Scottish gypies in the late nineteenth century, attests paurie meaning 'water' and also notes the variant pani which is the more usual form in both Romany and Scots Travellers' language. Romany also has the variants parni and pawni.2 Simson also records goroo 'a cow' but he also attests the variant gournie with the same meaning.3 A further example cited by James Hayward 4 is hukni meaning a confidence trick or something stolen or counterfeit, which is a variant of hookey which has passed into English from Romany.5

There is, perhaps, some long-forgotten grammatical reason for this type of variant. Much more exploration is required into the structure of Scots Gypsy language and also into Romany itself where it overlaps with Scots. This is no easy task as both traditions, until relatively recently, have been entirely oral.

Pauline Cairns Speitel

1 Smith, Jess Tears for a Tinker Jess's Journey Concludes Mercat Press Ltd 2005.
2 Simson, Walter A History of the Gipsies: with specimens of their Language Edinburgh and London 1865 and Hayward, James Gipsy Jib A Romany Dictionary Holm Oak Publishing 2003.
3 Simson, Walter A History of the Gipsies: with specimens of their Language Edinburgh and London 1865.
4 Hayward, James Gipsy Jib A Romany Dictionary Holm Oak Publishing 2003.
5 Wood, Manfri Frederick In the Life of a Romany Gipsy Routledge and Kegan Paul 1973 and 1979.