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Swither, Shoogle, Wheesht: Playing With Language in The Gloaming

19th April 2019 - Kirsty Logan

Swither, Shoogle, Wheesht: Playing With Language in The Gloaming

The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan


The GloamingKirsty Logan's second novel now in paperback, is a swirling tale threaded through with magic, heartbreak, love and mermaids. It is studded with evocative but perhaps unfamiliar words, adding atmosphere, mood and expression. Exclusively for Foyles, she has written about some of these Scottish words, that head up each chapter of the book. Read on, below.





Growing up in Cheshire with two Scottish parents, speaking and hearing these words on a daily basis, I didn't know that they weren't English. My parents used them; I used them. Kids at school didn't, but then kids at school said lots of things my parents didn't. When I was 12 we moved to Scotland, where these words were fairly commonplace – so it was only when I got published that I realised most English-speaking people didn't know Scots words.


I'm a massive language nerd – I like to taste it, play with it, get a bit inappropriate with it. Poetic prose is a joy to me, and I love to play with the sound and feel of language. This is partly why I decided to name each chapter of The Gloaming for a Scots word. Not only do the words look beautiful on the page, they feel great in the mouth, rolling the tongue and catching at the uvula. But they're not chosen just for prettiness: the words generally don't have direct English equivalents. The words are untranslatable, utterly themselves.


It was only when we got to final edits on the novel that I realised that my London publishing team (and, presumably, much of my non-Scots-speaking readership) didn't know what the words meant – meaning I'd need to add a glossary. It hadn't occurred to me that anyone wouldn't know these words, as they're such a regular part of my day. (A disclaimer: I'm not an academic and I've never studied Scots. All I speak from is my own use of Scots words. Any errors in usage are the way I use these words on a daily basis, correctly or not.)


Here the weather isn't bad; there's a smirr or a haar, it's baltic or dreich (and when it's dreich you get drookit) – or, more unusually, the sun is out and it's roastit. My friends don't get drunk; they get steaming, scunnered, blootered, jaked. Instead of knocking on a door you chap it, instead of a splinter you get a skelf, instead of your bum you sit on your bahookie, and instead of turnips and potatoes you have neeps and tatties – or tumshies and tatties, if you prefer. You know the feeling when you need to leave the house, and you can't find your keys, and you forgot make your lunch, and you're sure they're something you're forgetting, and you're really starting to panic? Congratulations: you are in a fankle. But dinnae fash (and definitely dinnae greet).


I could spend all day delighting in onomatopoeic Scots words, but I'll leave you to discover them yourself (you'll get about sixty of them in the glossary of The Gloaming). Here are my favourites, all of which I use regularly:


Swither (to hesitate)

I used this in several stories before I realised it wasn't an English word. If you've read my previous novel The Gracekeepers, you've already read this word: "Callanish swithered on the porch, not sure whether she should change back into her white dress." I think my editors must have assumed it was a word I had made up, like 'gracekeeper', because they didn't question it. I love this word and find it so much more evocative than 'hesitate'. I think of swithering as the wishy-washy swaying action my hands make when I can't make up my mind.

How to use it: "Stop swithering and decide what you want for dinner."


Shoogle (wobble)

My door key is stiff and needs coaxing to turn; every day when I open the door I think to myself, 'just give it a shoogle'. Shoogling is what a just-set jelly does. It's the feeling when you stand between two carriages on a moving train. It's when you're trying to back-and-forth an object into a space it doesn't quite fit, or you've got a bit of furniture that's cheap or past it's best: it's wobbly, unsteady; it's got a wee shoogle in it.

How to use it: "I'm not getting a sofa from Ikea again, they get really shoogly."


Wheesht (hush; telling someone to be quiet)

When I was growing up, I loved the way my mum said my name because she was the only person I knew who rolled the 'r' in Kirsty; I also loved the way she said wheesht, even though it meant she was telling me to be quiet. Wheesht can be said so emphatically, and 'hush' just can't compare.

How to use it: "Wheesht, I'm trying listen to this!"


Gloaming (twilight, dusk)

The gloaming is the space between day and night, when the light pales to blue and everything is outlined in gold. It's the most beautiful part of the day – the golden hour, the photographer's favourite. I named my novel for this word and I still didn't know it wasn't an English word (perhaps people who haven't heard it before think it's a made-up word to match The Gracekeepers). To me, 'dusk' just doesn't have the same evocative beauty.

How to use it: "I love being with you in the gloaming."


I've used all these words in conversation in the past week. If you, like me, love the sound and taste and texture of them – give them a go. A whole new language awaits.


Kirsty Logan is the author of the novel The Gracekeepers, the short story collections A Portable Shelter and The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. Her books have won the Lambda Literary Award, the Polari First Book Prize, the Saboteur Award, the Scott Prize and the Gavin Wallace Fellowship, and been selected for the Radio 2 Book Club. She lives in Glasgow with her wife. Read more about Kirsty's work on her Author Page.


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