“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach. Ye canna say more than ye know, but tell me it all, just once more.”
sassenach: (Scots, adjective or noun) English; an English person
I must have gone for years without hearing or reading this word until the advent of the improbable television series Outlander in 2014 (based on Gabaldon’s novels), which brought the word to the attention of (apparently) the entire English-speaking world, if not beyond. The first season of the series introduced a time-travelling twentieth-century nurse to Gaelic-speaking eighteenth-century Highland Scots, who call her a “Sassenach”.* At which point, people started talking nonsense about the word on the Internet. So no change there. Two of the most common misleading claims echoing around social media about the word Sassenach are that it is a) derogatory and/or b) designates anyone who is not a Gaelic-speaker, be they English, Scottish Lowlander, or indeed any kind of foreigner. But neither of these is strictly true—which is what this post is about.
The first thing to know is that sassenach is a Scottish English word, adopted from Scottish Gaelic in the eighteenth century, which has had three centuries to diverge in meaning from the Gaelic original. This is a really important distinction that generally seems to get lost in discussions of sassenach. But we can tell immediately that it’s not a Gaelic word because it breaks a fundamental rule of Gaelic spelling—caol ri caol is leathann ri leathann, “slender with slender and broad with broad”, which prevents the vowels “a” and “e” being paired on either side of a consonant. And that double “s” is not a standard piece of Gaelic orthography, either. The Gaelic word from which English sassenach derives is sasannach. (You’ll sometimes see the archaic forms sasunnach or sasgunnach in the etymology section of English dictionary entries.)
Modern Gaelic Sasannach is both an adjective and a noun. As a noun, it designates someone who comes from the country of Sasainn, which is England. As an adjective it means “pertaining to England”.
Sasainn is cognate with the word “Saxon”—the Gaels designated all the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain “Saxons”. This included the Angles of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, which straddled the modern Scottish border and occupied what is now eastern Scotland south of the Forth estuary. But nowadays Sasainn means “England” and Sasannach (plural Sasannaich) means “Englishman” or “English person”. Now, Sasannach is a masculine noun, and some Gaelic dictionaries record a specific feminine version to designate an English woman—ban-Sasannach (literally, “woman-Englishman”, just as banrigh, “queen”, is “woman-king”). I’ve no idea to what extent ban-Sasannach is used in modern Gaelic, but it’s perhaps relevant to the eighteenth-century Gaelic of Outlander.
The important thing to point out here is that Sasannach is the standard Gaelic word for an English person. It simply can’t be a derogatory term in and of itself, any more than simply calling a French person “French” can be derogatory. Certainly context can make a derogatory intention clear—the online Gaelic dictionary, Am Faclair Beag, contains a marvellous example of this in the phrase cho mealltach ris an t-Sasannach, which they coyly translate as “as treacherous as quicksand”, but which actually means “as treacherous as the Englishman”. But it’s the context that makes this insulting, not the word Sasannach.
As to whether Sasannach is a word applied to Lowlanders, foreigners and (ahem) outlanders in general, the experts are clear:
[…] contrary to common misunderstandings, Sasannach is not used in Gaelic to refer to a Scottish Lowlander.
In the High Middle Ages [~1000-1300CE] Gaels began to refer to foreigners who were settled amongst them as Gall (plural Goill). This initially denoted a person from Gaul—someone from outwith the British Isles—but was subsequently applied to the Vikings, Anglo-Normans and Englishmen.
By the early modern period [~1500-1800CE] in Scotland, Gall came to mean generically the people of the Lowlands who spoke a form of English (in distinction to Sasannach ‘Englishman’). This terminology indicates a Gaelic perception that the English-speaking peoples who became ‘naturalised’ in Scotland were different to those who lived south of the Scottish border.
[…] the Scots word “Sassenach,” derived from the Gaelic word “Sasannach,” […] does not mean “outlander” or “foreigner” — it only means an Englishman. In Gaelic the word is neutral […]
The distinction in meaning between Gall and Sassanach is made clear in lines from a song entitled Cuiribh Glùn (“Overcome The Rogues”), written by Gilleasbuig Mac Iain, in response to the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act, which put an end to school-teaching in Gaelic:
’N d’rinn an nàdurrachd a chall?
’N d’rinneadh Galld’ iad is Sas’nnach?
(“Did Nature make a mistake? Were they [the children of Gaels] born Lowlander or English?”)
Despite this, you’ll find any number of Lowland Scots explaining on social media that, to Highland Gaels, all Lowlanders are Sassenachs. (If you scroll down the through the comments section on such postings, you’ll usually find a weary Gael pointing out the error.) I remember my father told me the same thing, sixty years ago, so it’s not some new, Outlander-driven phenomenon. In fact, the idea has been around for centuries—here’s Tobias Smollett, in his novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771):
I was not a little surprised, when asking a Highlander one day, if he knew where we should find any game? he replied, ‘hu niel Sassenagh’, which signifies no English: the very same answer I should have received from a Welchman, and almost in the same words. The Highlanders have no other name for the people of the Low-country, but Sassenagh, or Saxons; a strong presumption, that the Lowland Scots and the English are derived from the same stock […]
This exchange is presumably based on something that Smollett had experienced or heard about, but whatever it was the Highlander actually said (it looks to have been something like Chan eil mi sasannach, “I’m not English”), we’re told by Pons-Sanz and MacCoinnich, in The International Companion to Scottish Literature (2018), that the Gall/Sasannach distinction had been around in Gaelic since the fifteenth century, if not earlier. Indeed, we have a fine example of a Gael addressing himself to the shortcomings of Lowlanders, specifically, eighty years before Smollett’s spurious claim, in Iain mac Ailein’s poem honouring the exiled Sir John Maclean:
Cha dùth do Ghall àrd bheann a dhìreadh
(“It is unnatural for a Lowlander to climb a high mountain.”)
So contrary to the assumption of Smollett’s narrator, the Gael would certainly have had the linguistic tools to differentiate between a Scottish Lowlander and an Englishman, but was presumably just unable to distinguish between a Scottish and English accent in a foreign language.
So this idea that Gaels call Lowlanders Sasannaich has been around almost as long as the word Sassenach has existed in Scottish English, and the number of Lowlanders who understand that they are Goill, rather than Sasannaich, is regrettably low.†
It’s a shame, because Gall has some interesting etymological connections. In Gaelic, the Hebrides are still called Na h-Innse Gall, “The Islands of the Foreigners”, a reference to the time when these islands were under Viking control. The Vikings had also planted colonies in Dublin, and later began to settle in southwestern Scotland, where they assimilated the Gaelic language and culture and came to be known as Gall-Ghàidheal, “foreign Gael”, which is still with us in the modern Scottish surname and placename Galloway. The surname Galbraith records a different ethnic origin—it comes from Gall-Breathnach, “foreign Briton”, which probably designated the old inhabitants of Strathclyde, who spoke a Brittonic language similar to Welsh. And finally there’s gall-òglach, “foreign soldier”, which is the origin of our lovely old word gallowglass, meaning a mercenary soldier.
So much for Gaelic sasannach. What about the English version, sassenach? Speakers of English have a default word for English people, which is of course “English”. So they have had the scope to attach a subtly different meaning to sassenach.‡
We’ve established that some Lowlanders (and English people, and Americans) describe themselves as Sassenachs, in a self-deprecating way that communicates “I am unfamiliar with Gaelic and/or Scottish culture”, and that this is born of a very common misunderstanding of the usage of sasannach in Gaelic.
Can it be used by Scots in a derogatory fashion aimed at English people? I’ve never encountered it, outside of fiction produced by non-Scots. The problem is that the word Sassenach is wince-inducingly redolent of the “heuchter-teuchters the noo” variety of cartoon Scottishness, and any modern Scot uttering the word can’t help but feel as if they are appearing in a remake of Brigadoon. The only usage with which I’m familiar is friendly and jocular, when Scottish and English friends encounter one of those occasional episodes of cultural misunderstanding or incomprehension, and in my experience it’s often the English person who’ll label themselves a Sassenach during that sort of exchange. I’m not claiming that the word Sassenach has never been uttered with derogatory intention by a Scot, in all of recorded history—just that if you visit Scotland in the hope of hearing Scots hissing “Sassenach!” at passing English folk, you’re going to be very disappointed indeed. Sorry about that.
* The Highlanders of Outlander speak Standard English awkwardly spiced with bits and pieces of Scots and Gaelic vocabulary to provide colour. In Scots, for instance, no-one would say “Dinna fash yourself”, as in the quotation at the head of this post. It would be either “Don’t upset yourself” (Standard) or “Dinna fash yersel” (Scots). But ensuring that most of the dialogue is in Standard English gives viewers a fighting chance of following the plot. It certainly doesn’t reflect the culture of the time, though, in which a wealthy and privileged Highlander would speak Gaelic, understand Scots very well, and perhaps might also have a command of Standard English, Latin, or one or more European languages, while most of the common folk would be monoglot Gaels.
† The usually excellent on-line Dictionaries of the Scottish Language don’t help things, claiming in the entry for Sassenach that it was “formerly also applied to the Lowlanders of Scotland”, without providing any supporting citation beyond the erroneous statement by the narrator of Smollett’s novel. They then add an extraordinary etymological footnote, “[Gael. sasunnach, Saxon, English, an Englishman, an English-speaking Lowlander of Scotland, the Scots and English languages not being differentiated in Gael.]” This is not correct, as Michael Newton makes clear in Warriors of the Word: “The Gaelic word beurla refers to language in general […] Beurla Shasannach is the English of England, while Beurla Ghallda refers to Lowland Scots. Because of the common presence of English, beurla alone implies any variety of English. In the seventeenth century the blanket term luchd na Beurla [“English speakers”] appeared, with a note of disparagement, for speakers of both English and Lowland Scots.”
‡ This, of course, means that Gaels speaking English have the option to code-switch and say “Sasannach” if they want to convey something that they can’t when using the standard word “English”. I’ve heard it said that modern Gaels sometimes use Sasannach in this way, as a disparaging term for a Lowlander—so something similar to the luchd na Beurla usage in my previous footnote, lumping Lowlanders and English together. But I haven’t had this confirmed by an actual Gael.