What Scotland has given us: glamour and golf, among other things


They’ve given us kilts; they’ve given us bagpipes. Haggis? You can choose to take it or leave it, but thanks to our northern numpties (q.v.), the Brits can offer our own item of exotic culinary fare. I thought they might have given us windbag (I mean, look at the image above), but that was just false speculation on my part. No, they’re smart, witty, left-wing and eloquent, and they’ve given the world Sean Connery and an accent sexy enough to stir anyone’s loins — even if we can’t understand a word they’re saying. Och aye the noo: we’re talking about the Scots, who right now are giving their British compatriots nothing but sweaty palms and heart palpitations as we await the results of their historic referendum on Thursday  … Will they stay, or will they go?

But how many people know that they have also given us glamour, golf and gumption? Those are just three of a number of words that find their origins in the Scottish Highlands (or Lowlands): more such words are listed below, with their back-stories. Whereas some seem to wear their Highland homeland easily on their sleeves (such as caddy, clan, gloaming and wee), there are a few surprises in there. Who knew, for example, that we had the Scots to thank for pony, blatant and raid? My favorite discovery is that glamour, with its early Scottish meaning of magic, derives from the word grammar. Aye, that’s bonnie.

blackmail: a tribute levied by freebooting Scottish chieftans or Border Reivers who ran protection rackets against Scottish farmers

blatant: perhaps an alternative of the Scottish blatand, meaning bleating, associated with blatter

bonspiel: Scottish mid-16th century

caddie or caddy: from the 1630s, the Scottish form of French cadet. Originally “person who runs errands;” meaning of “golfer’s assistant” is from 1851. A letter from Edinburgh c.1730 describes the city’s extensive and semi-organized “Cawdys, a very useful Black-Guard, who attend … publick Places to go at Errands; and though they are Wretches, that in Rags lye upon the Stairs and in the Streets at Night, yet are they often considerably trusted …. This Corps has a kind of Captain … presiding over them, whom they call the Constable of the Cawdys.” Also late 18th-century Scottish jocular for a young fellow or lad.

canny: also Northern English. Scottish late 16th century. From English can in older sense of “to know how.” Often used superciliously of Scots by their southern neighbors (and their American cousins). “Canny Scot is so well known as scarcely to require description. He carries caution, cunning, and selfishness to excess. Deceitful when a purpose is to be accomplished, he is not habitually deceitful. One thing he never loses sight of — his own interest. But of his own interest he is not the most enlightened judge.” [“The Natural History of Scotsmen,” in The Argosy, December 1865]

clan: borrowed from the Gaelic clann, meaning family, stock, or off-spring. Late Middle English: A group of (esp. Highland) Scots claiming descent from a common ancestor, acknowledging a patriarchal chief, and usually all having the same surname.

convene: late Middle English, borrowed from French convenir, from Latin convenire

cosy/cozy: colsie, Scottish dialect, perhaps of Scandinavian origin

firth: early 15c., Scottish from Old Norse fjörðr or fjord

glamour: 1720, Scottish, “magic, enchantment” (especially in the phrase “to cast the glamor”), a variant of the Scottish gramarye meaning “magic, enchantment, spell,” an alteration of English grammar with a medieval sense of “any sort of scholarship, especially occult learning,” the latter sense attested from c.1500 in English but said to have been more common in Medieval Latin.

gloaming: Middle English (Scots) gloming, from Old English glomung “twilight”, from OE glom. It fell from currency except in Yorkshire dialect, but preserved in Scotland and reintroduced by Burns and other Scottish writers after 1785

golf: mid-15c. Scottish gouf, usually taken as an alteration of Middle Dutch colf or colve, meaning “stick, club, bat”. The word was first mentioned in a 1457 Scottish statute on forbidden games. 

glengarry (or Glengarry bonnet): a brimless Scottish cap with a crease running down the crown, often with ribbons at the back. Named after the title of the clan chief Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry (1771–1828), who invented it

gumption: 1719, originally Scottish, “common sense, shrewdness,” also “drive, initiative,” possibly connected with Middle English gome “attention, heed,” from Old Norse gaumr “heed, attention.” 

laddie / lassie: a boy /a girl (see “-y” below)

links: 1728, from Scottish/Northumbrian link “sandy, rolling ground near seashore,” from Old English hlinc “rising ground, ridge;” This type of landscape in Scotland was where golf first was played; the word has been part of the names of golf courses since at least 1728.

pernickety: 1808 (pernicktie, in Jamieson), “precise, fastidious,” extended form of Scottish pernicky, of uncertain origin, perhaps somehow from particular.

plaid: 1510s, from Scottish, from or related to Gaelic plaide “blanket, mantle,” of unknown origin. Possibly a development of ply, to fold, giving plied then plaid after the Scots pronunciation. Or perhaps a contraction of peallaid “sheepskin,” from peall “skin,” from Latin pellis 

pony: 1650s, powny, from Scottish, apparently from obsolete French poulenet “little foal” (mid-15c.)

raid: early 15c., “mounted military expedition,” Scottish and northern English form of rade “a riding, journey,” from Old English rad “a riding, ride, expedition, journey; raid,” (see road). The word died out by 17c., but was revived by Scott (“The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” 1805), (“Rob Roy,” 1818), with extended sense of “attack, foray.”

scone: “thin, flat soft cake,” 1510s, Scottish, probably shortened from Dutch schoon brood “fine bread,” from Middle Dutch schoonbroot

tweed: cloth being woven in a twilled rather than a plain pattern. 1839, a trade name for a type of woolen fabric, named for the River Tweed in Scotland

wee: Middle English (originally a noun use in Scots, usually as a little wee ‘a little bit’): from Old English wēg(e)Wee hours is attested by 1891, from Scottish phrase wee sma’ hours (1819). 

wraith: 1510s, “ghost,” Scottish, of uncertain origin.

-y: a suffix in pet proper names (such as JohnnyKitty), first recorded in Scottish c.1400; according to the OED it became frequent in English in the 15th or 16th century. Use with common nouns seems to have begun in Scottish with laddie (1546) and it became popular in English due to Burns’s poems, but the same formation appears to be represented much earlier in baby and puppy.

And saving one of the best for last:

numpty: an endearing term for lovable idiot. Shows friendly banter (“Och you’rea right numpty”). As Jenny Colgan wrote in The Guardian back in 2007, “Scotland’s favourite word, according to a poll by BT Openreach, is numpty. Derived from “numps”, an obsolete word for a stupid person, rather than the more obvious numbnuts or numbskull, the term implies general idiocy, often in my experience accompanied by windbaggery. Which explains why you will most often find it used in connection with members of the Scottish Parliament.” Let’s hope those numpties make the right decision when they go to the polls on Thursday …


Etymologies taken from the Oxford English Dictionary or the Online Etymology Dictionary.

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Some further reading on Scottish words and sayings:

A Scots glossary

Some old Scottish sayings

And an informal guide to the Scots tongue for the benefit of occasional visitors to Scotland or readers of Scottish literature.

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