AT LAST, LE MOT JUSTE. -- Bill Kirton

An acknowledgement right from the start. I owe the inspiration for this piece to our fellow AE member (and my good friend) Eden Baylee. All will be revealed in due course.



My theme is the Scots dialect (or bits of it, anyway). I’m English but have been fortunate enough to live in Scotland for most of my life. You’ll have seen the images of the place – gorgeous, accessible hills and glens, lochs and rivers – heard the magical names – Loch Ness, Glencoe, – and you probably have your own ideas, positive or otherwise, about it. My focus here is on just one aspect of it, one which I, even as a Sassenach, appreciate as much as, or perhaps even more than some Scots do themselves, their language.

What better word, for example, to convey the exact feel and nature of a dreary, rainy overcast day than ‘dreich’? Or what better label for a stubborn woman or naughty girl than ‘Thrawn besom’? (When I checked the spelling of this in my dictionary I couldn’t resist copying the example they gave. It was “Dinnae pou' yer brither's hair, ya wee besom.)

To continue… how much more effective it is to call a stupid person ‘glaikit’? or to accuse someone telling tales on someone else of ‘clyping’.

But it’s not all bleak, harsh stuff. If you daydream in Scotland, you’re ‘in a dwam’, and when Rabbie Burns turned up a mouse with his plough, his reaction was:

‘Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle!

The mention of Burns reassures me that, despite my nationality, I’m at least partly qualified to comment on the subject. A few years back, thanks to my wife exchanging jobs with a French teacher in South West France, we had to live there for a whole academic year. It was wonderful and, since my wife’s a Scot, we held a Burns supper for some of her colleagues, at which I had the honour of addressing the haggis (which her son had brought from Scotland for the occasion).

Me, Son and Granddaughter

 So, fully kilted up, and to an audience whose English was at best passable and, at worst, non-existent, I intoned:

‘Fair fae yer honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudden-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak yer place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's ma airm.’

Then, at the appropriate point in the recital, I drew my World War I Sgian dubh from my sock and stabbed the food I was addressing.

All of which leads me to my point. As writers, we’re daily in search of many ‘mots justes’ for all sorts of circumstances. Any of you whose job (or preference) it is to convey what’s happening in the world (especially the western bit of it) at present will, I’m sure, be glad that you need search no further for one particular noun that will doubtless be central to many of your scribblings. Thanks to Eden Baylee, who was kind enough to forward it to me, you may now confidently describe ‘a person, usually male, prone to making outrageously stupid statements and/or inappropriate behaviour while generally having a very high opinion of their own wisdom and importance’ as a cockwomble.


Subsequent research has revealed that ‘cockwomble’ is, in fact of more generally ‘British’, rather than purely Scottish provenance. The author’s contention, however, is that its onomatopoeic resonance as well as the precision of its signifier function qualifies it to be aligned with the other examples in the above. He also asserts that this is not a scholarly essay and therefore should be judged by the same standards as most current ‘official’ documents, in that its relationship with the truth is, at best, tenuous.


Sandra Horn said…
The slaying of the mighty haggis is something I'd like to have seen! Great post. One of my favourite (of many) Scots dialect words is 'jo' as in 'John Anderson, my jo, John'. There's something infinitely tender about it. Thank you, Bill.
Jan Needle said…
I hope you're not referring to the beloved ex-president of America as a cockwomble, Mr Kirton. Fie upon ye. His mother was a Scot, But with apparently far less good taste than all the Scottish women I have known and loved. It's a happy day though,innit?.
Umberto Tosi said…
And a beautifully expressive language it is. Thank you Bill. I've admired the Scots from long before they garnered the world championship in most foul names for Donald Trump a few years ago.
Eden Baylee said…
Hahaha! So great to see you in a kilt, Bill. A great picture with your adorable granddaughter and son too.

I would've loved to be there for your stabbing of the Haggis! :D I've attended a few Robbie Burns suppers, since we live close to a Scottish pub (the only one in the city). The event and traditions of the evening are really delightful, even though I am not a fan of haggis itself.

Regarding the word "cockwomble," I forgot about sharing that word with you, heh. As at this writing, that particular cockwomble is still hanging on to his cock ... never mind.

He will be gone soon enough! :D
Bill Kirton said…
Thank you, Sandra. I share your admiration of that ‘my jo’. The first few times I heard it, I assumed it was just an abbreviation of ‘my John’ but the word actually means ‘sweetheart’ (which you no doubt knew). Either way, the love and tenderness it carries is exquisite.

Jan, while I share your elation at the demise of ‘the beloved (?) ex-president’, the fact that 70 million of his countrymen still voted for the pussy-grabbing cockwomble is a source of apprehensive concern. But I do look forward to the publication of your autobiographical ‘All My Scottish Women’.

Thanks, Umberto, although I’m not sure semantics has yet produced a signifier foul enough to encompass his totality (in any language).

And a double thank you to you, Eden, for inspiring the ramble and for your kind remarks. However, I fear that your confidence in him leaving ‘soon enough’ may be premature, and, even if it’s justified, his corrosive legacy may persist.

Finally, lest any doubts linger as to my haggisidal tendencies, the French incident was unique.

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