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SHILPIT adj feeble

A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue has little evidence of the early use of shilpit, but what is has is splendid. It cites Sir Robert Moray’s Letters to Alexander Bruce, 2nd earl of Kincardine, wherein shilpit is used of wine in the sense of insipid or lacking body:

“I think not you did amisse to abstain from wine a while ...seing...the best you have is but shilpit stuff” (1658).

It also gives a noun from shilpit used in the Diary of Sir Archibald Johnston of Wariston (1637):

“Lord, thou knouest ...the schilpitnes of my wit”.


It is not until the nineteenth century that this word comes close to its modern popularity. At the start of that century Sir Walter Scott is still using it of wersh wine in Waverley (1814):

“He pronounced the claret shilpit”.

However, by that time it is also being used of peelie-wallie people or unhealthy features. So in the Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (1832) we have “The white-faced shilpit-like wretches”.

Ian Maclaren paints a clear picture in the Young Barbarians (1901):

“He was a little man, and gey shilpit about the neck”

and we can hold out little hope of improvement for the character under discussion in John Tweeddale’s Moff (1895):

“‘Hoo’s ’e lookin’?’ ‘He’s shilpiter.’”

R. Crombie Saunders uses the word in a poetic context in The New Makars edited by Tom Hubbard (1991):

The shilpit mune of autumn Keeks wanly thro the mirk”

 but it is mainly a word embedded in everyday speech and most of us now recognise the set phrase employed by George MacDonald Fraser in his hilarious account of army life, The General Danced at Dawn (1970):

“Baxter hesitated. ‘He called me a shilpit wee nyaff, sir.’ The president stirred. ‘He called you what?’ Baxter coloured slightly. ‘A shilpit wee nyaff.’”.

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 22 August 2011