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Word gets around

Chris Robinson

An outreach highlight of 2013 was the chance to take part in a summer school course for students from The University of Ohio. In the first week, Dr Michelle O'Malley taught them about American dialect varieties in the light of immigration patterns, concluding with a focus on Appalachian English. This merged very well with my own teaching on dictionaries and the modern dialects of Scotland. Many of the students were away from home for the first time and were feeling a bit jet-lagged and lost, so they were ready to embrace the many familiar Scots words that emigrants from Scotland took to the Appalachians. Armed with Michael Montgomery’s Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English (University of Tennessee Press, 2004), we found common family relationships in granny and grandpaw. Jook in the sense of duck was known to a few. Paper or plastic pokes were well-known to the students and their usual plural pronoun form of address you uns sounded remarkable similar to the yous yins so widely heard in Scotland. Even their reflexive theirselves owes something to the Scots-speaking diaspora. One student who was very much a native speaker of the Smoky Mountain dialect empathised strongly with the negative attitudes to Scots which we are still working to overcome. He grew up sharing the linguistic insecurity of many Scots, having his speech classed as second-rate. Inspired by the work being done here, he is now keen to research and promote his own language.

I spent a couple of days confined to 'Dictionary Corner' in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle during their Mither Tongue weekend. A gentleman there was lamenting not the anglicisation of Scots but the Americanisation. I can't say that I have noticed this to any great extent, other than the use of the progressive aspect as in I'm loving it, used throughout the UK, but if anyone has other examples, I would be interested to hear about them. One word that seems to have been embraced as Scots and is probably an American import is galoot. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1819 and seems to have originated in nautical slang with the sense given in W. H. Smyth's The sailor's word-book: an alphabetical digest of nautical terms (London 1867): "Galoot, an awkward soldier..A soubriquet for the young or 'green' marine". As a nautical word, there was plenty of opportunity for it to get about a bit. The later sense given by the Oxford English Dictionary is "An awkward or uncouth fellow: often used as a term of good-natured depreciation" described as "orig. US" and there is sporadic use in this sense elsewhere throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So why do we find it rebranded as Scots on tourist tea-towels and coasters along with old faithfuls such as glaikit and scunner? My own theory is that its reimportation from the US was in quite small numbers but, during or after World War II, specifically through US naval or airbases in Scotland, there was the opportunity for prolonged contact between Scots and US speakers. It was just by chance that the uptake in Scotland was so enthusiastic that it became, in effect, a new Scots loan word to add to our existing store of Scandinavian, French, Latin, Dutch, Flemish and Gaelic.

The same kind of sporadic and localised borrowing can be seen in the Travellers' word shan. Areas with a high level of contact with travellers have long been centres where loan words such as barrie and gadgie have leaked out and taken hold in the wider population. We cannot predict which words will be borrowed, which will be ephemeral or long-lived, widespread or localised. Shan (shabby, old, bad, ill) has taken hold in the Edinburgh area and in West Lothian. Young speakers often use it in the sense of 'unfair'. It is also known in Newcastle. However, I have not yet found an informant in the West Central area who knows this word. Will it spread, like galoot, to become a Scottish favourite with fewer users in England? We shall watch and wait.