Spey the planets

April 22, 2021

In a recent post I noted an Irish sense of the word gentle meaning ‘enchanted or visited by fairies’, used in Charles McGlinchey’s book The Last of the Name. That book also features the unusual word spey:

I think it would be a descendant of these Dohertys of Keenagh who was a great harp player, the best in Ireland. One Christmas market he was going to the fair of Carn, but his stepmother, who could spey [foresee] and read the planets, advised him not to go for there was blood over his head. When he insisted on going, she killed a rooster and sprinkled the blood over him.

On his way to Carn, a fight broke out between Catholics and Protestants; Doherty stabbed a man and had to leave the country. His stepmother’s spey proved accurate. Though glossed in the original as ‘foresee’, the verb spey is closer to ‘foretell’: more clairvoyance than prediction.

Also spelled spae (which is how most dictionaries list it, if they do), or spay, the word entered English from Old Norse spá around the 14th century and throughout its history has been in mainly Scottish use. I’m not sure of the connection, if there is one, to spy, which comes from the Indo-European root spek- ‘observe’.

The Dictionary of the Scots Language shows how spae may be used intransitively (‘spae nae mair about uncannie things’) and transitively (‘spaeing folk’s fortunes’). Robert Burns used it thus in ‘Halloween’:

Ye little skelpie limmer’s face!
How daur you try sic sportin’,
As seek the foul Thief ony place,
For him to spae your fortune!

The verb gave rise to a noun, spae ‘prediction, prophecy, omen’, which is in much rarer use. The OED cites Sabine Baring-Gould’s Iceland: its scenes and sagas (1863): ‘The Finns’ spae is come true, so here we shall settle.’

Book review: Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers, by Robin A. Crawford

July 21, 2020

My limited knowledge of Scots and Scottish English when I was young was based on caricatures in comics, particularly ‘Hot-Shot Hamish’. It was not until later that visits to Scotland, friendships with Scottish people, and books by the likes of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh gave me a proper flavour of the richness of Scots vocabulary and grammar.

Scots is a language with Germanic roots and a complicated political history. Linguistically it has been described as a continuum spanning Broad Scots and Standard Scottish English, with considerable variety in between. A common misconception is dispatched on the Spellin an Grammar page of Scots Wikipedia: ‘Scots isna juist Inglis written wi orra wirds an spellins. It haes its ain grammar an aw.’

It is wirds that are showcased in Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers, a new book by Robin A. Crawford, whose publisher, Elliott & Thompson, sent me a copy. The book is a marvellous compendium of a thousand Scottish words, from a’ (aa, aw) ‘all’ to yowe trummle ‘unseasonably cold weather in early summer’ – cold enough to make a yowe (ewe) trummle (tremble).

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Scots Syntax Atlas: mapping oot the dialect

December 18, 2019

The Scots Syntax Atlas (SCOSYA) is a fantastic, newly launched website that will appeal to anyone interested in language and dialect, especially regional varieties and their idiosyncratic grammar. Its home page says:

Would you say I like they trainers? What about She’s no caring? Have you ever heard anyone say I div like a good story? And might you say You’re after locking us out? All of these utterances come from dialects of Scots spoken across Scotland, but where exactly can you hear them?

To answer this question, we travelled the length and breadth of Scotland, visiting 145 communities, from Shetland in the north to Stranraer in the south. We were particularly interested in the different ways that sentences are built up in these different areas. This part of a language is called its syntax, and it’s one of the most creative aspects of how people use language.

The resulting interactive Atlas has four main sections: How do people speak in…?, Stories behind the examples, Who says what where?, and Community voices. The two questions are self-explanatory. Community voices is a collection of extracts (audio and transcripts) from the conversations recorded – a trove of accent and dialect diversity.

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Lifting the sneck

August 22, 2012

Here’s a word I don’t recall noticing before: sneck. I came across it in John Gordon’s short story ‘Left in the Dark’, in a Ghost Stories anthology chosen by Robert Westall:

…the stairway became narrower until there was scarcely enough room for them and their luggage, and their free hands were holding a painted rail. They came to a landing of bare boards and one small window.

‘Can’t be any farther, can it?’ said Jack. ‘We must be practically under the roof with the birdies.’

‘That’s where you’re wrong, hinny.’ Pauline imitated his Newcastle accent. ‘There’s one more stage yet.” She went to a plain door that had a latch instead of a handle. ‘Lift the sneck,’ she said as she raised the latch and pulled back the door, ‘and here we are. Almost.’

Sneck is a dialect word from Scotland, also used in the north of England, referring to the latch or lever of a gate, door, window, etc. (see photo, below).* It’s also a verb: to sneck the door is to close or fasten its latch; or you could ‘put the door on the sneck’. A door that’s ‘off the sneck’ has the catch left off; if it’s sneckless, there’s no latch.

Sneck was around in Middle English as snekke. The OED says it’s obscurely related to snatch (n.); Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary makes the same connection. The Dictionary of the Scots Language has a wealth of dialectal examples from the last few centuries.

The word has produced several phrases. A sneck drawer or sneckdraw is a ‘latch lifter’, meaning a sly, crafty or stealthy person, or even a cheat. Similarly, to draw or lift a sneck can mean to act in a sneaky, surreptitious fashion, or to insinuate oneself thus into a situation.

A sneck-lifter can be a burglar, a ghost, or someone who goes door to door in the traditional ‘First Footing‘ ritual on Hogmanay. Most elaborately: according to Jennings Brewery, who make Sneck Lifter Ale, the phrase can mean

a man’s last sixpence which enabled him to lift the latch of a pub door and buy himself a pint, hoping to meet friends there who might treat him to one or two more.

A sneck-bend is a hook-shaped bend you’d find in a river or road, while a sneck-band is a latchstring, a piece of string tied to a sneck/latch and passed through a hole to the outside of the door or gate. A sneck-posset is a fastened latch, and give a sneck posset is an idiom equivalent to ‘give someone the cold shoulder’ (i.e., give an unfriendly reception).

Sneck up is an imperative meaning ‘be silent’ or ‘shut up’. Jonathon Green, in Chambers Slang Dictionary, dates Sneck up! (also Snick up!) to the late 16C–mid-17C, and describes it as an exclamation of dismissal, as in ‘The hell with you!’, taking its literal meaning as draw the latch and go to the other side of the door.

In a helpful article about the word for Caledonian Mercury, Betty Kirkpatrick says it even appears in head gear: a snecker-doun is ‘a man’s cloth cap, known in Scots as a bunnet, with a stud fastener on the peak’. Lifting this sneck has opened up a charming store of phrases previously unknown to me, both literal and metaphorical.

Edit: An example from Texas, 1909: ‘…and the Lord said unto Moses — “Sneck that door!”‘ via @TweetsofOld, who also found sneck off used as a typesetting term in Minnesota, 1899.


* Sneck can also refer to a cut, a nose, or a type of small stone used to fill gaps in a wall, but I’m ignoring these senses here.

[cropped image from Wikimedia Commons]