WOW! interjection My word! Dear me!
Wow may seem a surprising word to appear as the Scots Word of the Week but, until recently, it seems to have been an expression of amazement, fear or admiration as exclusive to Scots as Jings! Crivvens! or Help ma boab! It appears shortly before 1500 expressing surprise in a rather bawdy context. It is an apt exclamation in the presence of ghosts; from Douglas’s Aeneid we have
“Out on thir wandrand speritis, wow! thou cryis”.
Its respectability is confirmed by its use in James Row’s Red-Shankes sermon (1638):
“What trou ye she (the Kirk of Scotland) is flichtered with, but with a silken threed ... and wow but we have taken great delight to be bound”.
Dismay mingles with surprise in this last quotation. As we move into the eighteenth century, there are several such examples where both surprise and sorrow are expressed. The distress in the King Henry ballad (1783) is indisputable:
“O whan he slew his good gray-hounds, Wow but his heart was sair!”
and a dramatic quotation from the Edinburgh Evening Courant (1786) shows how the word had become associated with wae (woe):
“But, ah! waes wow! It bleaz’d up like a comet keen, An’ burnt his pow”.
In spite of a partial conflation with wae, it also maintains its original sense, and is often followed by ‘gin’ (if) or ‘but’. We find it with the former in a poem by Allan Ramsay (1718):
“And wow gin she was skeigh (shy), And mim (coy) that Day”.
There are many such words that have travelled from Scotland south over the border and across the Atlantic. The wandering nature of words and their meanings will keep lexicographers in thrall for a long time to come, exclaiming with W. P. Milne’s Eppie Elrick (1955) with each new vagary:
“Wow’s me for ’e mystairious wyes o’ Proavidence”.
This Scots Word of the Week was written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionaries, and is spoken by Katrina MacLeod. Katrina grew up in Falkirk but now lives in Perth and works in the information sector.
First published 13th July 2009.