ELDRITCH adj weird, uncanny
Possibly this word comes from Old English ‘elfrice’, literally ‘elf-kingdom’ and most of the contexts in which we find it certainly suggest other worlds. We have it explicitly linked with ‘elf’ in William Stewart’s metrical version of Boece’s history (1535):
"Thinkand it war sum elrische man or elfe".
The Bellenden translation of Boece (1531) uses it of three kenspeckle witches:
"Makbeth and Banquho … met be the gait thre wemen, clothit in elrage and uncouth weid (clothing)"
but the best-known example comes from Burns’ Tam o’ Shanter (1793):
"So Maggie runs, the witches follow, Wi’ monie an eldritch skriech and hollo".
Many writers link it with Pluto and incubi. This quotation from William Dunbar’s Golden Targe (a1508) is typical:
"Thare was Pluto, the elrich incubus, In cloke of grene".
Grene, of course, is closely associated with elves or fairies, and eldrich fairies appear in David Lindsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaits (1540):
"I pray the alreche quene of fary To be your protectioun".
Gavin Douglas in his Aeneidos (1513) uses "Tha elrych bredyr" in reference to the Cyclops, warning us
"All is bot gaistis, and elrich fastasyis, Of browneis and of bogillis ful this buke".
Tourists in Edinburgh might be wary of the lower part of the Royal Mile if they read Allan Ramsay’s Poems (1721):
"O Cannigate! poor elritch hole, What Loss, what Crosses does thou thole!"
Helen W. Pryde creates a noun to use with comic effect in McFlannel Family Affairs (1950):
"And as the scraighs rose in pitch and volume there was added to the eldritchery the terror shrieks of Sarah and the bewitched yapping of Susan the dog",
but the eldritchery is really no laughing matter; as the poet Charles Fleming chillingly reminds us in Poems, Songs and Essays (1878)
"time’s a chiel that stan’s wi’ eldrich whittle".
Scots Word of the Week is written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionaries.
This week's Word is spoken by Dr Dauvit Horsbroch.
First published 30th August 2010