In a poem written near the end of his life, W. S. Graham imagined himself as a ‘wordy ghost’, ‘floating across the frozen tundra / of the lexicon and the dictionary’. Like Graham – like many people – I am also a ‘wordy ghost’, who loves haunting the pages of lexicons, dictionaries and glossaries. Unlike Graham I find the pages of such books to be not ‘frozen tundra’, sterile and barren – but fabulous forests, alive with delving word-roots and spreading canopies of connotation.
When I turned 16, my grandparents gave me the two volumes of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and I still have them within reach of my desk now: the blue cloth binding bowed outwards at the top of each spine from all the times I’ve hooked a finger in to heave a volume out. For my eighteenth birthday, my parents gave me The Complete OED in its ‘micrographic’ single-volume form. They wouldn’t tell me how much it cost. It was 2,400 pages long, weighed around five kilograms, and came with its own magnifying glass and light – for each printed letter was less than a millimetre high. Reading the single-volume Complete was a form of worship, and I spent hours devotionally bowed over its dense-packed pages, tracking derivations and scrying definitions. Once – a true, terrible story, this – I balanced it above a bedroom door I’d left purposefully ajar, as a booby-trap for my brother. But my grandfather, visiting that day, was the first to walk into the room, and the dictionary struck him so hard on the head it knocked him to the ground.
These days my students in Cambridge all consult the online Oxford English Dictionary at the click of a mouse. It’s a brilliant resource, and far quicker than leafing through the tissue-paper pages of the hard copy. It weighs nothing, and magnifying glasses are not required. Occasionally, though – when we’re pausing over a particular word in a supervision – I haul out the Complete, so that they can see in material form the work that Anthony Burgess called ‘an epic achievement’, and with which I almost slew my father’s father.
Several years ago, I began to collect another kind of word-book: glossaries of languages, dialects and sub-dialects from the British Isles and Ireland. Many of these dated from the later nineteenth century and early twentieth, the heyday of lexicographic research into regionalisms: Walter Rye’s A Glossary of Words Used in East Anglia (1895), say, or Thomas Sternberg’s The Dialect and Folklore of Northamptonshire (1851), or Edward Dwelly’s magnificent 1,000-page Gaelic–English Dictionary, first published in full in 1911.
These glossaries fascinated me especially for the wealth of placewords that they contained: terms for aspects of the terrain, weather and nature of the landscapes of Britain and Ireland. In 2007 I had been given, by a Gaelic-speaking friend on the Outer Hebridean isle of Lewis, a ‘Peat Glossary’: a word-list of the Lewisian lexis for the peat moors of the island. I found it instantly beautiful for the compressive precision of its entries: bugha is a ‘green bow-shaped area of moor grass or moss, formed by the winding of a stream’, for instance, while teine biorach means ‘the flame that runs on top of the heather when the moor is burnt in the late summer’. That glossary set my head a-whirr with words – and it inspired me to start gathering place language, living and lost, from around our islands.
Of the many glossaries I sought out and pored over while pursuing this task of collection, one emerged as my favourite – a book I could read with as much ease and compulsion as a novel, and that conjured a culture and place into being as magically as any travelogue. It was James Stout Angus’s A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect, and it was published in Paisley in 1914. Let me give you a first flavour of its wonder with this, its sixth entry:
ABER, adj., sharp, acute, as an edge-tool; clear, well-defined, as a cloudless sky; eager, as a hungry fish at a bait; secure, as a knot on a line; ardent, severe; v., to sharpen, as a knife; to stir up and make bright, as a fire.
Ah! It is a poem, this entry: definition as evocation, evocation as definition, with a rhythm set running through it by the repeated unit of ‘as a’, and those subtle commas. Stout Angus’s prose carries the qualities of ‘aber’ that it is defining: it is ‘sharp’, ‘clear’, ‘bright’. And through each sub-meaning surges a sense of pre-war Shetlandic life: this is a world of tool-use, of fishing, of weather wild and mild, of stirred fires and sharpened knives – a world in which it is vital to tie one’s knots securely. When I first read that entry, I decided I had no higher ambition than to be described as ‘aber’ by a Shetlander (it hasn’t yet happened, though I’ve dropped hints to friends from the islands).
Turning the pages of ‘Stout Angus’, as the glossary is fondly known (the man become his work), countless other entries leap to the eye and the lips. Many indicate an archipelagic culture, in which the sea is the site of work, danger, food and beauty:
ADNASJUR, n., a large wave, or waves, coming after a succession of lesser ones.
BAA, n., an elevation of the sea-bottom so near the surface that the sea breaks on it with bad weather.
BAKFLAN, n., a sudden gust of wind which, by mischance, strikes a boat’s sail on the back side and so endangers the boat.
DOMRA, n., obscuration of the sky by haze.
RAAB, v., to fall, as a mass of rocks from the face of a cliff.
UTSHOT, n., the outward course of a tidal current from the land toward the sea.
Other entries suggest the everyday importance of plants and creatures: BARK-LEAF to denote ‘the blade and blossom of tormentil’, DOONFA KLOK for ‘a sort of winged beetle found in moory ground’, TEETIK, onomatopoeically, for ‘the rock pipit’, and the glorious-to-utter SWABBI MAA, meaning the ‘great black-back gull’. Numerous words serve to denote both outward circumstance and inward experience, suggesting how determining the one might be of the other on the islands: thus REE, for example, is a ‘spell of bad weather’ as a noun, and ‘riotous or uproarious through the influence of drink’ as an adjective.
The glossary also teems with resonant new words for familiar feelings: UTMAAGET, say, for ‘tired exhausted, worn out with hard work’. Some of these words have pressed their ways so deeply into my imagination that I now think with them or in them. When out in the mountains, hunkering beneath a crag to avoid a squall, I know myself to be krogging (‘KROG, v., to crook or crouch in taking shelter from the weather under some high or overhanging thing, as cattle do’). After weeks sitting at the computer, I am unmistakably DESKET (‘dazed, inactive, stupid, dull, as a person’). When faced with a knotty problem, I now seek to HUMBEL it (‘v., to reduce protuberant parts, as driftwood is humbeled by striking against the rocks, or as the beard of corn is knocked off by gently thrashing with a flail’).
Shetland sits at the convergence point of currents and seas – and also at the convergence point of languages and dialects. For centuries, while the ocean was still the quickest means of long-distance travel, the islands were not a cultural margin but a cultural centre. The richness of Shetlandic is born in part of its isolation from southern dialects, but more so from its melding of Scots, Gaelic and Norn – the North German language brought to Orkney and Shetland from Scandinavia in the ninth century, and spoken as the primary first language on the islands until the seventeenth century.
‘The object which I have in view’, Stout Angus wrote modestly in the preface to his glossary, ‘is to help to preserve what yet remains among us of our old Norn’, and to ‘give a fair sample of our dialect’. Born in Catfirth Haa in 1830, he lived in Lerwick most of his life, and in 1870 began to publish poetry in Shetlandic. ‘Eels’, which he wrote in 1877, has been hailed as ‘the first truly original poem in . . . the Shetland dialect’. It is a poem, surely, to be read aloud by a native speaker, but even non-Shetlanders will be able to hear the power of the Norn coursing through it. ‘Da Lammas spates, lack flyooget aets’, begins the first stanza:
Abon a flakki laavin,
Fell frae da lift wi a heavy drift
Da sarn as an hit’d been kaavin.
Stout Angus only turned to glossarizing towards the end of his long life; he was a poet before he was a lexicographer. To the duties of the latter, he brought the flair of the former. ‘I have endeavoured to make my vocabulary something more than a mere list of words,’ he wrote in 1914, and in that, magnificently, he succeeded. Every few months I open his glossary again, and float as a wordy ghost across its pages, amazed at the glisks it gives off (‘GLISK, n., a gleam of sunshine; a glow of heat from a fire’).
© Robert Macfarlane, Slightly Foxed Issue 49, Spring 2016
About the contributor
Travel writer and academic Robert Macfarlane is the author of books including The Wild Places, The Old Ways and, most recently, Landmarks. His interests in topography, ecology and the environment have also been explored through newspaper essays, notably his Common Ground series which was published in The Guardian. He has also published reportage and travel essays in magazines such as Granta and Archipelago. He is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. View contributor