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Interesting Etymologies 53 : Scottish

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

We near the end of our journey through interesting etymologies as we return to our own shores and our nearest and dearest neighbour, Scotland!

We've been to Wales & Ireland (Interesting Etymologies 16: Welsh & Interesting Etymologies 45: Irish) and now we visit the country with the highest mountain peak in the UK, Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis: Beinn is the most common Gaelic word for mountain (related to Pen in Welsh, also mountain or head - check out IE 16 for the fascinating etymology of penguin) Nibheis has various interpretations - neamh for heaven or nèamh for bright. It could also have merged from beinn néamh-bhathais (bathais the top of a man's head). So it could mean mountain to the heavens or head in the sky.

Glen: Gleann - a valley

Bard: for poet, claimed to be Scottish

Sporran: the weighted "purse" as part of traditional Scottish dress is apparently Irish - Old Irish sboran from Latin bursa for purse.

Spunk: Again taken from Irish but soaked up (that's what it means btw, soaked up) like a sponge, by the Scots.

Cairn: A stack of stones

Capercaillie : A large forest dwelling fowl

Trousers: Still known as "trews" today in Scotland, from triubhas.

Sassenach: A Saxon, the Scottish word for the English and despite what popular TV show Outlander might have you believe, this is not a term of endearment.

Plaid: The material from The Scottish word for blanket. loan word from Lowland Scots, past participle of ply - to fold.

Tarmagon : from tàrmachan (16th century) A member of the grouse family.

Pillion: The back seat of a stagecoach or these days, a motorbike. Believed to be connected to small cushion and also argued to come from Latin via Irish.

Scottish diminutive smidgen meaning a small part.

Ingle: An old word for a fireplace or heart, the inglenook comes from Scottish aingeal, a word for fire.

Some words have come to English from inventors. The Scots were impressive inventors and such words probably warrant an entire article of their own but a couple of examples:

MacIntosh - A waterproof coat. Charles MacIntosh invented the idea of placing a layer of rubber between two layers of fabric to create a waterproof coat. MacIntosh actually means Son of the Chief.

Strontium: From Sron An t-sithein meaning the point at the top of the fairy hill, Strontian. It was also where the chemical element known as strontium was discovered and named.

Golf & Curling are both Scottish words of unknown origin.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

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Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.

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