Meeting a Scot – Old High German words in the English and Scottish dictionary – or, my first experience with etymology

scotsmanEver since my first encounter with a real Scotsman in a pub in Brighton at the age of 16, which marked the beginning of a 3-week language ‘holiday’, my parent’s desperate attempt to combat my failing marks in the yearly school reports, I love the Scottish accent. So, when my new-dad-for-the-next-three-weeks picked me up after my arrival, and before dropping me off at my new-home-for-the-next-three-weeks, we took a detour to his local pub. There, I met his Scottish friend. He’s a real Scotsman, he’s from Glasgow, new-dad-for-the-next-three-weeks shouted from the bar whilst ordering me an orange juice. So what, I thought, before the Scotsman started talking…to me. All of a sudden there were all those strange sounds and unintelligible words emerging from his lips with the speed of a rocket… Greatso what now, I thought, looking for help from my new-dad-for-the-next-three-weeks, who was still standing at the bar. I didn’t dare to look at the Scotsman, whose words and sheer speed of talking intrigued me. Needless to say, I didn’t understand any of what he’d said. 

5 years later and having lived in London for a year or so, I met another Glaswegian. Coincidently my second encounter took place in a pub, yet again. But his time I was better prepared. Having met people from all over the world I enjoyed listening to different accents and guessing where people came from. That particular evening I was sipping on a pint of lager which helped not only my speaking but listening skills, too.

armpitThis second Glaswegian would eventually become a close friend, who one day said something like Och, I’ve got an itchy oxter! You’ve got an itchy what? I asked. Oxter. Oxter, I repeated and asked, What’s that? It’s a word for armpit. And that was it.

Oxter marked the beginning of my interest in finding the roots of words and my general interest in language(s). Thank you oxter!

Funnily, oxter reminded me of oxl (Austrian dialectal pronunciation of its standard German equivalent Achsel (armpit), and that motivated me to look up oxter in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). There I discovered that oxter is not only referred to as a dialectal word in Scotland but also in Ireland and other northern parts of England. So, I began with my first ever etymological mini-research. Here are some of the findings.

Oxter, can be used as both a noun – the armpit or underside/inside of the upper arm – but also a verb. The OED gives the following example from 1793 to illustrate the latter, The Priest he was oxter’d, the Clerk he was carried. A more recent example is taken from a Glasgow Broadsheet in 2000, … the stewardess in question had taken severely to drink….. She had to be oxtered out of the city-centre-style bar while the night was extremely young. (Online Dictionary of the Scots Language). The meaning of oxtered in both examples is the same, that is, being supported by the arm or taken under the arm.

As most of the quotations found in the OED are by Scottish authors we can see the regional usage of that word. The next step, therefore, was to look a little further into the origin of that word and I discovered that oxter actually originates from the Old English oxta or ohsta. Furthermore, I could trace a reference to the Old High German word ohsna and the Dutch oksel (Oxford English Dictionary, 1961), which is surprisingly similar to the above mentioned Austrian Dialect word oxl.

Ohsna and oksel probably arrived to the British Isles round about the 5th century when Germanic tribes invaded England and as the result of the many different Germanic languages Old English finally developed with an “internal dialectal variation between the north and south of England” (Leith, 2007, p.41), the consequence of various settlements of different tribes. Thus oxter probably ended up in the northern parts of England and Scotland.

I then wanted to find out if the usage of oxter is indeed a regional one and asked four friends of mine the same question: “What does oxter mean?”.

G K, 46, Glasgow:

G: It’s the armpit!

Me: Would you also use it to describe an action, as a verb?

G: No

J T, 58, Leeds:

J: Don’t know. Something to do with an ox?

H J, 39, London:

H: Not sure.

H B, 27, London:

H: Armpit. My grandmother and dad use the word.

Me: Would you use it?

H: No, it’s old-fashioned! None of my friends use it.

This minuscule, and for me exciting, investigation shows how certain words have crept into the English/Scottish  dictionary many many years ago and are still in use today. It also shows restricted or limited usage of certain dialect words are limited depending on (a) certain region(s), which often also reflects historic events. Hopefully oxter and oxtered continue to find their way into some literature in order to keep them alive.

References:

Melvyn Bragg in The Adventure of English, DVD 1, Chapter 1, Episode 2, 2006 the Open University.

Dictionary of the Scots Language online http://www.dsl.ac.uk/ (last accessed 9thApril 2014)

Leith, D. (2007) “The origins of English” in D. Graddol, D. Leith, J. Swann, M. Rhys and J. Gillen (eds) Changing English, London, Routledge/The Open University, p. 40-41

Oxford English Dictionary (1961), Oxford University Press

Oxford English Dictionary online at http://dictionary.oed.com (last accessed 7th April 2014)

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