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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Dr. Jamieson’s Dictionary, A Word to the Good – The Scottish Banner

February 28th, 2012

P1020627In 1965 I was a legal apprentice in Edinburgh and engaged to be married. My fiancée and I spent much of our spare time combing through back street second-hand and junk shops for small items to furnish our first home. These sorts of shops were more plentiful then, and looking back it seems like it was the end of a somewhat dusty golden era when the most unexpected treasures could still be unearthed and bought for pence. I still regret not buying the tiger skin I found in a dingy shop in Tarvit Street.

One of my more creative purchases was four calf-skin bound volumes of Dr. Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language published in 1878 which I bought for the then princely sum of £4 -10/-, or £4.50 (GBP) in today’s coinage. In triumph I carried them back to my bride-to-be who, with devastating realism, pointed out how many much more practical household items could have been bought for the same sum!

The Rev. John Jamieson D.D. (1759-1838) studied at both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities and, in common with many of the educated classes in those days, had a strong literary bias and a keen interest in antiquarian research which he carried with him throughout his life.

From the earliest age he showed great aptitude and it was said that by the age of four he could read the New Testament, an achievement no doubt encouraged by his Seceder minister father. By the time he was nine he had entered Glasgow University where he excelled in classical and philosophical studies for he matriculated as a student of theology at the remarkable age of fourteen. He eventually was appointed to the newly-formed Secessionist congregation at Forfar in 1780 where he spent 17 years, and where his interest in, and love, of language properly developed.

Lowland Scots, at this time, was written and spoken by all classes of society, although since the Union of the Crowns in 1707 it had ceased to be written in public deeds or used as a public voice and was generally regarded, including by Jamieson himself, as “vulgar words” – a corrupt dialect of English. Jamieson’s Damascene conversion to the idea that his national vernacular was a language in its own right was prompted by his friendship with the Icelandic-Danish scholar Grim Thorkelin, who argued that Lowland Scots was derived directly from Gothic or a northern dialect of Anglo-Saxon.

Jamieson was not immediately won over by Thorkelin’s hypothesis but for twenty years it gave impulse and direction to his researches. In 1808 he published his first dictionary in two quarto volumes. Its aims were – “To illustrate the words in their different significations by examples from ancient and modern writers; to show their affinity to those of other languages, and especially to the northern; to explain many terms which, though now obsolete in England, were formerly common in both countries; to elucidate national rites, customs and institutions in their analogy to those of other nations.”

The original two volumes dealt mainly with the language of Central Scotland and were accomplished almost singlehanded, so it was an enormous undertaking. The response was probably more than he could have hoped for. Approval was universal and from all over Scotland volunteers came forward with supplementary information, particularly about speech in areas with which Jamieson was unfamiliar. He was also able to call on brother clerics, educated men like himself, to assist in researching words whose use was restricted to particular counties or districts.

Thus, for instance, “mulligrumphs” meaning sullen or sulky was found only in Roxburghshire. But a word such as “cast” appears to have been universally used throughout Scotland with local variations. It has eleven definitions in its first entry and further meanings range from a “cast” of herrings (four in number); dropping eggs for the purpose of divination; applying a coat of lime or plaster, and to cut peats.

Dr. Jamieson laboured on and in 1825 issued a further two volumes completing the cataloguing of the whole of the language of Scotland so far as he was able. It was of course the vernacular Scottish language only. Gaelic, as a totally independent and separate language, was still widespread in the north and west of Scotland despite strenuous efforts, following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, to destroy the Highland way of life. Which explains why there seem to be few, if any, entries specifically relating to the Hebrides, although Nordic Orkney and Shetland have numerous references.

So what has happened to this vibrant language since 1878 when my four volumes were published? It appears to be practically extinct. It has certainly all but disappeared from our day-to-day conversation and one is hard pressed to find more than a handful of words that were common parlance 130 years ago, still given occasional outings just to prove that we remember them. Clearly “proper” English, the King’s or Queen’s English, became more socially acceptable than the familiar vernacular.

Its decline, therefore, was swift. With its loss went some of the culture that the language defined; we lost the cadence of the voices, the rhythm of the words and the music of their sounds. But, and it’s a very important but, we have Dr. Jamieson’s incomparable record which means it can never be completely lost.

Despite my wife’s original misgivings I still have my dictionary which has been a constant source of interest and amusement. Our children had endless entertainment hunting for words sounding too unlikely to be true – “whumgee” (vexatious whispering), “pilliewinkes” (thumb-screws), huddy-droch (squat, waddling person). And produced at the dinner table it helped to quickly settle a noisy argument that “arsecockle” is a hot pimple on the face and not a horse mussel.

As so much of my writing is about Scotland and Scottish stuff, my Jamieson’s Dictionary has been an invaluable resource for research and learning. Time and again I’ve opened its pages to check a word or a phrase and found myself pages later still enthralled by the language of my great-grandparents. History doesn’t have to be very old to be living history. That ill-considered purchase all those years ago has paid for its original investment many times over – and those four leather-bound volumes look mighty handsome in the bookcase!

Written on Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 at 6:58 pm for Claivers.