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Scots Word for March

Smeddum

cover of Smeddum by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, click to visit Canongate website
The Scots language has had its up and downs over the centuries, as have some of the words that it contains. Smeddum is one such word. It goes back to Anglo-Saxon smeodoma, meaning fine flour. In 17th century Scotland, it referred to the finest particles of grain lost as dust in the grinding process and swept up as refuse or food for the miller's pigs. A century later, its meaning had been extended to any fine powder including a red precipitate of mercury, an insecticide known to Burns, who would have given the eponymous antihero of his poem To a Louse a dose 'of fell red smeddum'.

The notion of efficacy extended the meaning of the word to pith, strength or essence of a substance and so, in 1822, Galt describes good snuff as 'sae brisk in the smeddum, so pleasant to the smell'.

Smeddum was applied figuratively to spirit, energy and courage. Burns wrote in 1787 of persons possessing 'smeddum and rumblegumption'. This is the sense in which Lewis Grassic Gibbon used it for the title of a short story.

Throughout these changes, some of the old sense of finely ground grain survived. According to the Scotsman of 20th August 1901, the sieved powder from crushed malt could be kneaded into tiny bannocks, baked on a griddle. Ideally the smeddum inside the baked crust should look and taste like a thick dark syrup.

Most revealingly, we find in the poems of J Milne (1790) that 'Afore he wrote, bauld Ramsay saw the smeddom o' our tongue decay.' Milne, and Allan Ramsay, might have been surprised by the renewed smeddum in the Scots language today. As for the word itself, not only has smeddum ceased to be the sweepings of off the mill floor but it is now one of the most valued qualities of the Scots character.

The Scots column is written by Director Christine Robinson. You can contact her with any questions.