Swimming against the Tide

Anne Smyth


Translation of documents in a situation of language development creates a sharp learning curve. It is all too easy to accord unreasoning acceptance to the stereotypes that daily bombard those who routinely work with the language.

For example, we are frequently told that Scots (and Ulster-Scots) words are simply ‘throwbacks’ to an older form of English, which has survived on the periphery while being lost in mainstream English usage. Life is rarely so simple.

This article looks at a few examples of borrowings that have gone the other way: Scots and Ulster-Scots words that have enriched the English language. A few of them may surprise you.

It seems appropriate that our first item relates to something that occupies much of our time in the USLS Committee: meetings. The word convene, in its intransitive sense, ‘to come together…, especially as a body, or for a common purpose’, is actually a Scots word. The Scottish National Dictionary tells us that Old Scots has the verb convene, to meet, assemble, from 1429.

The Scots emphasis on education is reflected in the word bursary. In its meaning, ‘a scholarship, an endowment given to a student in a school or university, an exhibition’, this too is a Scots word.

As those who have seen Mel Gibson in ‘Braveheart’ can testify, the Scots are fond of freedom. On the other hand, the word restrict, meaning ‘confine’ etc., was rare in English until the 19th century, and was originally a Scots usage.

A Scots word that has more recently come to be accepted in Standard English is crankie, meaning ‘weakly, unsteady, disjointed’ etc.

Perhaps associated with the Scots’ love of a good ghost story, the word uncannie, signifying ‘eerie’ etc., is now also Standard English. Somehow or other this word always puts me in mind of the hilarious sketch featuring ‘The Two Ronnies’ and entitled ‘The Bogle of Bog Fell’. This is probably another stereotype, but at least it has the merit of making you laugh!

For a people so often categorised as stingy, they have at least exported into English the word outlay, which was originally Scots.

One surprising borrowing into English is the word relevant, meaning ‘pertinent’ or ‘germane’. This is a Scots word which became Standard English in the eighteenth century.

A good old Scots word fettle, with the sense ‘strength, vigour, condition’, has now become common in English in such phrases as in good, bad, etc. fettle.

The Scots law term art or part, ‘contrivance or participation’, which finds its way into Ulster speech in the phrase know neither art nor part of, has been adopted into Standard English. Another Scots law term, process, often rendered pross in Ulster, meaning ‘bring a legal action against’, has also found its way into Standard English.

Other items from Scots and Ulster-Scots that have become established in Standard English can be broadly classified according to their referents. In the poetic category, we have such words as airt, anent, croon, inglenook, laverock, merle, tryst, yestreen, and yule. Connected with Scots/Ulster-Scots culture, dress and sport, we have balefire, bunker, jig, plaid, reel, tee, trews, and whisky. (Is this last one culture, dress or sport?) A large category relates to people or their attributes and actions: biddable, blather, feckless, finicky, forebears, guffaw, gawk, gumption, hoist (from Scots hize), hullabaloo, hunker, kittle cattle, mim, paddle (in the sense ‘walk with short steps’), pernickety, go to pigs and whistles, randy, redd up, scuff, sleep in, spunk (‘courage’), quick (etc.) on the uptake, winsome and wizened. Relating to the supernatural, there are bogle (‘The Two Ronnies’ again!), brownie, and gruesome. Connected to farming, fishing and related activities, we have bogie (originally a low vehicle for moving hay, but adopted in Standard English as a railway term), byre, clutch (altered by Standard English from the original Scots cletch), cluck (altered from clock), creel (adopted in the sense of ‘a basket for fish’), hackle/heckle, and rig (‘a partly castrated animal’ etc.). In the category of geographical features, there are cairn, drumlin, glen, spate, etc. Food matters provide us with dulse, pollan, scone and stodgy. A few terms remain that defy classification: English shingle, which is probably derived from the original Scots form chingle; rake (which is another Scots word for a gang of water — ie two pailfuls carried together — and has apparently been adopted by Standard English in current commercial terminology); swirl (in the sense ‘to move rapidly in eddies’); and unsneck ‘to unlatch a door’. Our two final items appear originally to have been borrowed from Scots Gaelic into Scots, and thence into Standard English: pet and pillion. Here, however, there may also be input from Irish Gaelic, and in the absence of a historical dictionary of Irish it is impossible to assess the timescale for the respective borrowings.

Often Scots forms remain truer to the etymological derivation of words. For instance, the Scots form emmer comes straight from the Old English, whereas Standard English has inserted a b to turn the word into ember. It has done likewise with stummle and mummle. Standard English has also mucked about with faut (to create fault) and fidge (making fidget). This, however, may be a subject for future research.

Hopefully, you will now realise that the way you speak contains more Ulster-Scots than you were aware of!



The Ulster-Scots Academy has been an integral part of the Ulster-Scots Language Society since 1993. The name "Ulster-Scots Academy" is registered to the USLS with the Intellectual Property Office.

Ulster Scots Academy


A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



This site is being developed on a purely voluntary basis by the Ulster-Scots Language Society at no cost to the taxpayer. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

This site is being developed by the Ulster-Scots Language Society (Charity No. XN89678) without external financial assistance. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

(Friends of the Ulster-Scots Academy group)