The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 26, 2010

Slang words have basis in Scottish heritage


— Growing up in Johnstown, Jane Oleksak thought because of her parents’ lack of formal education, they simply invented words to get a point across.

It wasn’t until she was more educated herself that she discovered that many of the words she thought were slang actually have a basis in Scottish heritage.

“I often thought my mother just made up some of those words she used,” Oleksak said.

“That is, until I read ‘A Scots Quair’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, who wrote about Kincardineshire, where he grew up in Scotland.”

In the back of the book, Oleksak discovered a glossary that contained most of the words her parents used.

Words that came over with the Scots-Irish and then with Scottish coal miners in later waves of immigration in the 19th century.

What many area residents take as western Pennsylvania sayings represent in reality a legacy of the people of Scottish descent, whether they came from Northern Ireland or Scotland.

Oleksak provided a number of examples.

To redd up is to clear away, tidy, clean up.

Hap is Scots for a quilt or coverlet and may be used as a verb: “Keep that baby well happed.”

A skift is a light falling of snow, rain or hail.

Rench is Scots for rinse.

Plaits were braids.

“Stick your nose in somebody’s business and you’d be called nebby or neb-nosed,” Oleksak said.

“Nebbock is Scots for nose and nebby means you’re nosy.”

Winter sidewalks are slippy instead of slippery to Scots.

Watch you don’t jag yourself on those jagger-bushes.

“Piece refers to a slice of bread given to children, and it was customary in my home to use this as a verb,” she said.

“For example, we just pieced today.”

Poke was a small paper bag for sweets.

“You could always count on things to get all gummed up just when it was the most inconvenient,” Oleksak said.

“Gum referred to a thin film on anything, or a disturbance or variance or misunderstanding.”

Having a lot of spunk meant you had a lot of courage or grit.

To be walloped is to be beaten or thrashed and a good walloping was to be avoided at all costs.

To yack means to talk.

To be thick with somebody means to be close, as in the expression “thick as thieves.”

“The use of the word smooch for kiss probably comes from smoorich, which means a hearty or stealthy kiss,” she said.

A billy is a young man and that’s probably where the term hillbilly originated.

Younz?  Even younz or y’uns or yinz came by way of Ireland and Scotland.

“Yin (one) and its plural, yins, appear in Scottish writing and, for all I know, are still used in Scotland and are probably as frowned upon as yinz is in Johnstown,” Oleksak said.