Scotland is a picturesque country where the people are friendly yet completely incomprehensible.
Setting aside Scots accents, which most people manage to tune into after fairly short exposure, it’s the vocabulary of Scottish English which is the main source of incomprehension for visitors. Some Scots words are easily translated: to swither is to vacillate, for instance, and a spaiver is a trouser fly. But some seem to serve functions that have no exact synonyms in standard English, and I thought I’d offer a brief selection of those here.
Dreich: (of experiences) protracted, hard to bear, depressing; (of weather) damp, overcast, unpleasant.
The original meaning of this word involved duration and tedium—journeys could be dreich, tasks could be dreich, sermons could be dreich. But the soul-sapping original meaning has now become inextricably linked to that most characteristic of Scottish weather—low cloud weeping gentle rain on a chilly day. So iconic has the word become for native Scots that it keeps being voted “Scots Word of the Year” in various polls.
Like many Scots words, it derives from older English vocabulary rather than (as one might guess) Gaelic. It is related to Old English dréoᵹan, “to work”, from which we get the word drudge. Dréoᵹan also gave us dree, “to do duty, to suffer”, which is now pretty much obsolete, but I do still take every opportunity to use the splendid expression to dree (one’s) weird, which means “to submit to (one’s) fate”.
Thrawn: perverse, obstinate, intractable, sullen
Thrawn is a personality type, rather than a temporary state of mind, though one may become increasingly thrawn with age (I know I have). And those who are thrawn may develop a particular set to their facial features, making them thrawn-faced or thrawn-gabbit (“thrawn-mouthed”).
Again, the word has English origins—it’s no more than a dialectic version of the word thrown. This originally meant “turned” or “twisted”, and the last relic of that old meaning in standard English is in the idea that we “throw” a pot if we mould its clay on a rotating potter’s wheel. But the Scots word has stayed close to the original meaning, implying that thrawn people have a twisted attitude to life.
Slaister: to move around or work messily in water or mud
You can slaister because you’re clumsy, or because you have no other choice. In Scottish hillwalking circles, the occasional need to slaister your way out of a peat bog is almost inevitable. By association, someone who is a particularly messy eater can also be said to slaister.
As a noun, a slaister is an instance of slaistering—the crossing of a peat bog can be described as a slaister, for instance, and the bog itself is said to be slaistery. You can also make a slaister of a job if you make a complete mess of it.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes the origin of the word as “obscure”, but I can’t help hearing a certain onomatopoeia to it.
Shoogle: to rock, oscillate slightly, or shift unsteadily
When I was first asked by a non-Scot to explain the word shoogle, I said that it meant “to shake”, but was quickly corrected by a friend who pointed out that there’s no such thing as “Shoogled Baby Syndrome”. Indeed, babies tend to enjoy being shoogled.
The key features of shoogling are a small applied force and a slight resultant movement. A baby dandled on the knee is being shoogled; a table that rocks on an uneven floor is shoogling; a child’s baby teeth will shoogle before they fall out. Something that is unstable enough to shoogle is said to be shoogly. Which gives rise to the lovely metaphorical usage “on a shoogly peg” or “on a shoogly nail” for anything that is insecure. “Your jacket’s on a shoogly peg” is a blunt way of advising someone that their employment may soon be terminated.
The word comes from Middle English shog, “to shake”, which is probably also related to the modern English words jog and shock.
Coorie: to stoop or crouch; to nestle
The verb to coorie is a diminutive form of coor, which is a Scots dialectic form of standard English cower. So it originally indicated a small act of cowering—stooping or crouching for protection, perhaps to get out of the wind or to conceal oneself. This association with seeking comfort then led to a usage which emphasizes warmth and safety, most commonly in combination with the word doon (“down”). As a child on a cold night I was often encouraged to “coorie doon” with my hot-water bottle among the warm bedclothes.
And building on that idea, Coorie has recently turned into a proper noun and an honest-to-God lifestyle trend. It has been dressed up as a translation of Gaelic còsagach (“snug, warm, cosy, sheltered”), which it never really was, and offered as the Scottish alternative to Danish hygge. Apparently, Scots are no longer stern Calvinists who scorn central heating and palatable cooking, but serious proponents of comfortable living with a product to sell to the world. You can read all about it in books like The Art of Coorie: How To Live Happy The Scottish Way and Coorie: What You Need to Know About The Scottish Lifestyle Trend. There’s even (saints preserve us) a colouring book.
Coorie has come a very long way from a shivering child clutching a hot-water bottle on a winter’s night.