Learn Ulster-Scots

Lesson 13 A closer look at Dialect (3)

In this lesson, you will learn:

  • words with a story
  • what’s in a name?
  • Ulster ‘crack’
  • scunner, sheugh and black-mouth

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Words with a Story

budget: a bag, usually of leather. The word was normally used when referring to the bag of a tramp or workman, or to the one in which a tinker kept his tools.

So how did the meaning of the word get transferred from a leather bag to a scheme for the obtaining and spending of national, and now also personal, money? It was all because of a political jibe. A pamphlet called 'The Budget Opened' was published in which the man who was at the time Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Robert Walpole, was compared to a seller of quack medicines opening his bag of supplies and conjuring tricks. You might have seen a similar kind of travelling salesman in films about the Wild West. From that time, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was said to open the budget. Over the years, the word budget came to be understood as his scheme for dealing with the country's finances, and the older, dialect meaning only survived among dialect speakers.

tory: Most Northern Ireland people have heard a child referred to as a wee tory. It just means 'a wee rascal'. However, this is the most recent development in meaning from a word that historically meant an Irish outlaw of the seventeenth century. How did the meaning change from a name for an Irish outlaw to a name for a member of one of Britain's political parties? The language from which the word came was Irish, but no one is very sure about how the word came to be adopted in Northern Irish speech or in English.

From its original 17th century meaning, an Irish outlaw, it was later often applied to any Irish Roman Catholic or Royalist in arms. The term was extended to robbers or bandits of other races, such as Border moss-troopers and Scottish highlanders, and, strangely enough, to members of a particular Hindu caste in India, renowned for their warlike qualities. For the next stage in the process, we have to look at a bit of English history. In 1679, in the reign of Charles II, a bill was brought before the parliament in London to have James, Duke of York, the king's brother, removed from the line of succession to the throne because he was a Roman Catholic. This was called the Exclusion Bill, and those who supported it were called 'Exclusioners'. These 'Exclusioners' gave the nickname 'tory' to people who were against this attempt to keep James from the throne. As you can see, there is a connection here between this and the first extension of meaning noted at the beginning of the paragraph, because these 'tories' would have been Royalists too. Therefore, from 1689, the word was used for one of the two great parliamentary and political parties in England, and eventually in Great Britain. None of the other modern parties existed then, so what was the name of the other party? (Whigs).


Because there is a lot of interest in dialect in Northern Ireland, people develop their own theories about where words came from. Many of these are not correct. Let's look at a few examples:

barnbrack: Lots of people will tell you that it should be pronounced barmbrack, and that barm is another word for 'yeast'. This is not correct.

Why did people make the mistake of thinking the word barmbrack had barm, for 'yeast', as part of it? Obviously a barnbrack does contain yeast. But another way of saying the word is barmbrack. Probably that version was due to the tendency we all have to simplify the way we speak, and it seemed easier to say the word with an 'm' instead of an 'n' before the letter 'b', because the lips are closed when saying both these letters. It is likely that the false idea of the word's origins came from an attempt to rationalise (or explain away) something that was just due to lazy speech in the first place.

If barm means 'yeast', why do we call someone 'barmy'? What does yeast do when added to liquid? (Froths up, ferments). How does that relate to calling someone 'barmy'? [They are 'full of ferment, flighty, empty-headed' (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).]

Actually, the word is barnbrack, and it refers to a large round loaf with dried fruit in it. The origin of the word is bairín breac which in Irish means 'little speckled loaf'.

crack: conversation, gossip; a good story or joke. The word is widely used in modern Ulster speech.

Maybe because of a certain advertisement on television, in which it is spelt craic, many people have assumed that this is an Irish word. In fact crack has had wide currency in Scotland with this meaning for well over two centuries, whereas craic does not appear in the older Irish dictionaries, such as Dineen. Of the main Irish to English dictionaries, the first one to include the word craic in this sense is Ó Dónaill, published in 1977. Crack, however, is common in the works of the old Scots poets. Here are a few examples:

1725: Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd

Good-morrow, Nibour Symon – come sit down, And gie's your Cracks. – What's a' the News in Town?

1773: Fergusson's Poems

To the stiff sturdy aik they lean'd their backs, While honest Sandie thus began the cracks.

1786: Burns Holy Fair

They're a' in famous tune, For crack that day.

This is a good example of the common tendency of languages and dialects to 'borrow' words from each other. These borrowings are a two-way affair. Furthermore, it's often difficult to see which language had the word first, and working this out is made more difficult when good historical dictionaries are not available for one or both of the languages in question. A historical dictionary is one in which the sense development of each word is followed by reference to the literature in which the word appears.

scunner: sicken, nauseate, disgust. Many Ulster-Scots speakers say scunder instead of scunner. This may have arisen from a mistaken attempt to 'correct' the word and make it sound more polite. It could be that this revision was influenced by the fact that Ulster-Scots turns Standard English 'thunder' into thunner, and therefore the insertion of the 'd' into scunner was seen as conforming more closely to English speech. There is a double irony here, because etymologically the 'd' in 'thunder' is also an insertion that was not in the word for the first couple of hundred years of its use in the English language.

Another thing to notice is a speech trait that Ulster-Scots shares with Northern Hiberno-English dialect: the 'interdental' pronunciation of 't' and 'd'. For the letter d, this is often signified in literature by the substitution of dh, in this case producing scundher. The device is frequently criticised as 'eye-dialect', but how to replicate the actual sound has been a problem to linguists seeking to devise a system of spelling standardisation for Ulster-Scots (which has never had 'right' or 'wrong' spellings for its vocabulary), and a solution satisfactory to all parties has yet to be found.

sheugh: a drainage channel, a ditch. The word has become a stereotype of Ulster-Scots speech, particularly because of the way the gh sound is pronounced, as in the Scots pronunciation of loch. No-one is very sure where this word came from originally. Although many people believe that sheugh is an Irish word, it is certain that it appeared in Scots before it came to Ulster and before it was 'borrowed' into Irish. The word may be of Flemish origin.

black-mouth: This is an interesting one. As used today, this is a slightly tongue-in-cheek word for a Presbyterian. If you listen to people who know some dialect talking about this word, they will usually say that it was used to describe the Scottish Covenanters who had to hide from the English soldiers out on the moors and ate blaeberries (blae being the Scots word for 'blue') to stay alive. Others say it was blackberries (or in Scots brammles) they were eating, and that the associated historical period was that of the Famine.

Rev. W F Marshall, who made a study of dialect, insisted that this explanation was wrong. He pointed out that the word had never been known with this meaning in Scotland, so how could it possibly have arrived here? Certainly, neither the Scottish National Dictionary, the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, nor the English Dialect Dictionary, contains it. W F Marshall says that it was used in England with a totally different meaning, still in use in Lincolnshire at the time of his research – a railer, a slanderer, a foul-mouthed or malicious person. Marshall believed that it was this sense that arrived in Ulster at the time of the Plantation, and that it expanded over the years to take on the meaning it has at present.

He could not pinpoint when the word was first applied to Irish Presbyterians, but his own dialect work indicated that it was round about the end of the 18th century. At that time, the word black-neb was in use in Lowland Scots meaning someone who was 'agin the government' or supported the revolutionary movement in France. Marshall thought that the word black-mouth had taken on exactly the same meaning in Ulster, and at the same time. Since so many Presbyterians, particularly in Antrim and Down, then supported the aims of the 1798 Rebellion, a term of abuse originally applied to rebels or potential rebels against the state was, according to Marshall, transferred to Presbyterians as a whole. In this Marshall saw the hand of the established church, the Church of Ireland, whose interests were closely linked to those of the state.

Do you think that Marshall’s theory stands up? If not, why not?

Many of our favourite sayings in Northern Ireland include the names of people or places. You may be interested in picking out ones that use your own first name, or those of people you know. The sayings with place names included can be illustrated with reference to a map of Ireland.

a name for the smallest and weakest pig in a litter (a 'runt'). Why would it be called after the patron saint of swineherds? (Probably the one that might not live was originally consigned to the care of the patron saint with prayers for its survival). What other names do you know for the smallest or weakest animal or chick in a brood or litter? There is a long list of names: baa-lamb, bag-shake, caup pig (a caup being an Ulster-Scots word for a shallow wooden bowl used in the dairy for skimming milk), crowl, dawlyie, dillon, dimlick, dorbie, draulyegh, droigh, droily, gawrey, nab, nestling, ortin (Scots oart means scraps or leftovers), ranny, rig, runt, the scrapings of the bag, scrunt, the shake of the poke, wee skitter, snig, torry, totam, and wretchock.
That beats or bangs Banagher (and Banagher bangs the deil). We don't really know which Banagher this refers to. Bang is defined by the English Dialect Dictionary as 'beat, surpass, excel, outdo'. Banagher figures in one of its Irish quotations, and also, strangely enough, in one from Cumberland, in the north-west of England: 'That beats all that ever I heard - bangs Banager, as we say on the fells' (1867). There are no English Banaghers that we know of, so it is likely that the expression was exported to England from Ireland.

Most of the people who know something about dialect think that it is the Banagher in Co. Offaly that is meant. It seems that Banagher was a 'pocket borough' sending two members to parliament in the days before all adults had a vote. They of course would vote whatever way the local landowner told them to. It is not clear how this helps to explain the phrase, but it could well be that the way they voted went against all reason, and the phrase was therefore used to describe something totally unreasonable.
Billy biter or Billy nipper:
'the blue tit'. What does a blue tit do that might account for the last part of the name? Hang up one of those net bags of bird nuts in the garden, and see if you can get a blue tit to come calling. (He holds onto the net, sometimes upside down, and pecks away at the nuts inside).
'a turkey-cock'. This was originally a Scots name. The Scottish National Dictionary thought it came from the noise a turkey-cock makes. An earlier Scots dictionary, compiled by Jamieson, said that it referred to the turkey's wattle or comb, which came down over its beak and made the turkey look as if it had sniffles hanging from its nose. See if you can get a recording of the sound of a turkey-cock gobbling. A picture of a turkey-cock might also help. Comparing the noise and appearance, which explanation do you think was the right one?
This hat is the kind that Scots dialect calls a lum hat (lum being a 'chimney'). These were popular at the end of the 17th century.
They were not, as might appear from the name, called after a girl called Caroline. The word 'caroline' meant 'of or relating to Charles', and especially to Charles I and II of England, or their period.
Come in, Dungannon, I know your knock. Sounds like something out of the Eurovision Song Contest, doesn't it? This is a 'catchphrase', meaning a phrase that catches or is meant to catch the ear. No one is sure where it came from.
Killinchy muffler. A Killinchy muffler is someone's arm around your neck, or a cuddle. No explanation for the phrase seems to be available. Were people who lived in Killinchy especially loving? Or is it connected with the cold breezes from Strangford Lough?
the man from the Montiaghs. The Montiaghs was a parish four and a quarter miles north-west of Lurgan, in County Armagh. It occupied a very large section of the southern part of Lough Neagh, and half of it was bog. In 1834, a survey showed that the area had just under 3,000 inhabitants. The only village of any note in the area was Charlestown. It's not surprising that the inhabitants were not well known for sophistication.

Lowland Scots has a similar phrase with the same meaning: Teenie fae Troon. Troon seems to have progressed a bit better than the Montiaghs. It now has a transatlantic airport, and a renowned golf course.
the paughle fae Ahoghill. This is a simple one! No deep, dark meanings – the phrase became popular just because it forms a jingly rhyme. A paughle is a stout, clumsy person.

BBC Northern Ireland gratefully acknowledges that this lesson was provided by the Ulster-Scots Language Society - and copyright belongs to Philip Robinson and Anne Smyth.

Other Lessons

Lesson 1

Meeting and Greeting

Meeting and Greeting
  • greet people in Ulster-Scots
  • introduce yourself
  • talk about where you come from
  • count in Ulster-Scots

Go to this lesson: Meeting and Greeting

Lesson 2

Self, Family and Friends

Self, Family and Friends
  • nouns for family members
  • nouns for parts of the body
  • describing appearance
  • describing yourself, family & friends

Go to this lesson: Self, Family and Friends

Lesson 3

Moods, Feelings and Clothes

Moods, Feelings and Clothes
  • moods, feelings & characteristics
  • words for items of clothing
  • talking about appearance
  • traditional Ulster & Scots dress
  • clothing & characteristics in Scots & Ulster-Scots poetry

Go to this lesson: Moods, Feelings and Clothes

Lesson 4

Hobbies, Interests and Work

Hobbies, Interests and Work
  • describing hobbies & interests
  • words for some jobs
  • working life & leisure time
  • traditional Ulster-Scots pastimes
  • traditional pastimes and jobs in Ulster & Scots poetry

Go to this lesson: Hobbies, Interests and Work

Lesson 5

Food and Drink

Food and Drink
  • examples of food and drink
  • ordering food in a restaurant
  • discussing eating habits
  • food and drink in Ulster & Scots poetry
  • finding Ulster-Scots recipes

Go to this lesson: Food and Drink

Lesson 6

Weather and Seasons

Weather and Seasons
  • words for types of weather
  • weather conditions
  • words for different seasons
  • seasonal activities
  • the weather in Scots & Ulster literature

Go to this lesson: Weather and Seasons

Lesson 7

Nouns and Names

Nouns and Names
  • buildings
  • parts of the face and head
  • The Coortin’ o Miss Norris

Go to this lesson: Nouns and Names

Lesson 8

Meeting and Greeting (2)

Meeting and Greeting (2)
  • Meeting and Greeting (2)
  • The Coortin’ o Miss Norris - Practice Reading and Dialogue
  • Markers of Ulster-Scots

Go to this lesson: Meeting and Greeting (2)

Lesson 9

Grammar and Pronunciation

Grammar and Pronunciation
  • the Definite Article before a Noun
  • spelling and pronunciation
  • saying, doing and being

Go to this lesson: Grammar and Pronunciation

Lesson 10

Pronouns - and Linen-Making

Pronouns - and Linen-Making
  • Pronouns
  • A Byre o a Hoose
  • Tha makkin o tha lïnen

Go to this lesson: Pronouns - and Linen-Making

Lesson 11

A closer look at Dialect (1)

A closer look at Dialect (1)
  • what is dialect
  • when to use dialect speech
  • dialects in Ulster?
  • dialect spelling
  • ‘language versus dialect’

Go to this lesson: A closer look at Dialect (1)

Lesson 12

A closer look at Dialect (2)

A closer look at Dialect (2)
  • what good is it learning about dialect?
  • country matters
  • farming vocabulary
  • farming practices of old

Go to this lesson: A closer look at Dialect (2)

Lesson 14

A closer look at Dialect (4)

A closer look at Dialect (4)
  • similes
  • forms of ‘be’ and ‘do’
  • Match the meanings
  • Wordsearch
  • The Minister’s Cat
  • Call my Bluff

Go to this lesson: A closer look at Dialect (4)