Dialect proves to be a talking point

Over the past four weeks Alastair Christie-Johnston, the co-author of Shetland Words, has been presenting a few of his favourites in The Shetland Times. Here we have compiled the first four words that have appeared in the newspaper’s Dialect Dictionary column.

Like all dialects, that used in Shetland is a “living” thing that changes. We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Alastair’s interpretations. Are you familiar with the words he writes about, do you agree with his definitions?

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PERSOWDIMENT (n) a heterogeneous mixture of things, a messy hotch-potch.

This is a word frequently used by my wife, Adaline, mostly in connection with buying sweeties! She’ll speak of going to Universal Stores for “a persowdiment of sweeties”.

The word can be found in both Thos. Edmondson’s An Etymological Glossary of Shetland & Orkney Dialect (1866) and in James Stout Angus – A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect (1914), where it is rendered as persowdie (or persowdi). It also appears in the online Dictionary of Scots Tongue (DOST) under the headword powsowdie and is further associated with sowdie milk and meat boiled together (yuk!).

The Scots Dialect Dictionary compiled by Alexander Warrack MA and published by Waverley Books Ltd (2000) offers: “Persowdy (n) a medley, an incongruous mixture.”

This latter suggests the word is by no means obsolete although it appears to have become quite localised in recent times. While not currently listed in Shetland Words, it probably ought to be added to future editions as it has recently been brought to my attention by several people.

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TRACK (TRAK) (v) to make tea – particularly to infuse it.

I hear this a lot among Cullivoe folk but have also heard it said in Aywick. I mistakenly thought they were saying “crack” and were referring to the way the pot begins to bubble when placed on a hot stove to infuse.

I looked the word up in the online Dictionary of Scots Tongue ( DOST) and found the following (among other bits): *Sh. 1949 J. Gray Lowrie 39: What sorro ir you twa gyaan ta reek fur eenoo whin da tay is trakked?

Comb. track-pot, treck-, tract-, a tea-pot (Sc. 1808 Jam.; ‡Abd. 1972). Also dim. trackie (Bnff. 1866 Gregor D. Bnff. 195; ‡ne.Sc. 1972), trockie. Phr. to saiddle the trackie, jocularly, to make tea (Abd. 1964).

It appears to be of Aberdonian origin but is definitely used hereabouts. I’d be interested to know if other Shetlanders are familiar with this word.

James Stout Angus, A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect (1914) p143: “Trak (v p.) to drag along with a rope; to infuse tea.”

Thos. Edmondson, An Etymological Glossary of Shetland & Orkney Dialect (1866) p130: “traked, drawn, infused.”

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NOSE-TIRL (n) nostril.

Initially this looks like nothing more than a mispronunciation and in fact that is what a couple of noted philologists have suggested.

I decided to check it out nevertheless and discovered the word appears in James Stout Angus’s A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect (1914) and also in the earlier work by Thomas Edmondson titled An Etymological Glossary of Shetland & Orkney Dialect (1866).

Going back still further we find the old English version of the word was nosthyrl – thyrel meaning “a hole”. It struck me that originally it was probably two separate words which is pretty much how the few Shetlanders who still know and use this version of the word say it.

Given the Shetland dialect tendency to change “th” to “d” or “t” (see page xv of Shetland Words’ introduction) thin = tin, thistle = tistle, etc, the word begins to gain credence.

My friend Dr Steven Fischer an acclaimed linguist and philologist agrees.

What do others think?

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FLOAMIE (FALOAMIE, FLOMI) (n) something wide, flat and spread out – a muckle floamie of a cott flung aboot his shooders.

James Stout Angus’s A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect (1914) gives, “floami, n. a large flake; a broad piece, especially a broad piece of arable land”.

Thos. Edmondson, An Etymological Glossary of Shetland & Orkney Dialect (1866) offers, “floamie a large or broad piece” and The Scots Dialect Dictionary compiled by Alexander Warrack MA and published by Waverley Books Ltd (2000) lists, “floame, floamie n. a large or broad piece of anything. [Icel. flæmi: something wide, large, extensive; flat surface or space]”.

It should be noted that many dialect words still in common use in one part of Shetland can be totally unknown elsewhere in the isles.

This may be thought strange in these days of regular interaction between districts, not to mention social networking on the web. Yet in as short a distance as from Cullivoe to Mid Yell, Adaline found when she used the word “floamie”, Mid Yell folk claimed to have never heard of it.


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  • Brian Smith

    • September 13th, 2016 13:43

    It is often worth looking at the Oxford English Dictionary for Shetland words. It gives English examples from the 14th century to 1916 for nose-thirl.


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