dog wearing fake nose and glasses

A Scots English word in disguise

Born and raised in Glasgow as I was, I’ve always been confident I could spot a Scots English word when I saw one in the wild, even if it were unfamiliar to me. Generally speaking, they seem to fall into two main categories: words that sound a bit like what for the purposes of this post I will call English English – and words that don’t. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the ones that sound a bit like English English usually have some kind of tweak to the main vowel or the end consonant, which is sometimes missed out altogether: guid for good, pair for poor, moose for mouse, frae for from. The other category of words includes those that are straight dialect words, many of which have a delicious aural crunch to them, leaving one in no doubt as to their origin: glaikit, cludgie, bampot, stoorie, peelie-wally.

Of course, there are many delightful regional variations. I once attended a Burns Supper in London, at which the Immortal Memory – the traditional speech given on such occasions recounting and celebrating the life of the Bard – was delivered, somewhat unusually, in the very melodious Doric dialect of North Eastern Scotland. Frankly, I struggled.

In fact, when you look closely at the various forms of Scots English, you’re bound to notice similarities with words in other Western Germanic languages. This is no surprise: modern Scots is a mish-mash of historical influences, from Northumbrian Old English in the 7th Century, through Viking incursions in the North bringing a touch of Old Norse, the spread of Anglo-Danish settlers northwards later on, not forgetting a very rich history of trade with Norway and the Low Countries. I’m sure you can add to that list yourself; exactly how modern Scots English developed is a lively area of study, although the details of it are outwith the scope of this post.

Which brings me to my Scots English word in disguise. In fact, I just used it: did you spot it?

(preposition: outside of, beyond)

outwith my expectations

I must confess, I only discovered a few years ago that the word outwith was not English English (or Standard English, if you really must insist). After all, there’s nothing about it to suggest that it’s a Scots English word. To be perfectly honest, it looks boringly well-behaved and most certainly lacks that lovely aural crunch I was talking about earlier. I had used it for years perfectly happily assuming it was an English English word. Then, one fateful day, an old Scottish school friend of my acquaintance linked to a bombshell post on Facebook, in which the Scottish narrator expressed their astonishment at being told by their university tutor, after they’d used the word outwith in a written assignment, that it wasn’t a real word.

My jaw dropped. I needed to check this.

And so it was that I, in my turn, posted the link and asked my friends – a good mixture of English, Scottish and other friends, native English speakers and not – whether they knew the word. The results were fascinating.

Every Scot knew the word and assumed, like me, that it was English English. The majority of my English friends had never heard of it. I was incredulous. There were a couple of exceptions: a small number of my English friends did know it, usually because they had Scottish family members or had lived in Scotland. One chap had first come across it as a schoolboy while browsing the prospectus of the University of St Andrews. He commented that he’d been momentarily confused by it but had deduced its meaning from context. Only one English friend – bless her – knew the word despite having no direct Scottish connections and was as astonished as the Scots to find out it was a Scots word.

The non-native English speakers seemed to be very amused by the whole thing.

where it came from

On looking into the etymology of the word, I discovered that outwith was a perfectly good Middle English word that seems to have disappeared in most of England since (there is often some overlap between usage in Scotland and northern parts of England, of course). It seems the word without came to dominate in England in later times, meaning the same thing, before that word itself evolved its modern meaning. It’s all very confusing.

But that’s the beauty of language, isn’t it? Always developing, always moving forwards. No matter how much you learn, there’s always something new to surprise and delight. I’d love to hear your thoughts about language-related discoveries you’ve made that have astonished you, so please do share them in the comments.

And in the meantime, as soon as I’ve finished typing this in MS Word, I shall take great satisfaction in defying the spellchecker, which is currently underlining every example of the word outwith in the text with those curly red error lines. Ha! Nope. It’s a real word, you confounded little bampot of a word processing program.

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