BIRL v, n spin, whirl
The first unequivocal quotation with birl in the sense of spin appears in 1790 in David Morison Poems:
“The temper pin she gi’es a tirl, An’ spins but slow, yet seems to birl”,
but an earlier word in A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue may be related. This older word means ‘to pour drink for someone’. It dates from Old English and appears in Scots in John Rolland’s Seven Sages (1560):
“Scho ... on ald Ysak birlit the wyne”.
There is at least a link in the more recent expression, enduring into the nineteenth century, of ‘birlin the bawbees’ or putting them in the kitty for the purchase of alcohol. The sense of whirling gets extended to rushing or hurrying; there is no indication that the callan in David Davidson’s Thoughts on the Seasons (1789) had earlier been birlin bawbees:
“Fast to the Kirk the callan birl’d, An’ the door snack he quickly twirl’d”.
To make a rotating, dirly sound is to birl. The Dictionary provides a specialised piping sense:
“a grace-note in which while the A note (the lowest but one) is sounding, the little finger of the lower hand is drawn across its hole, striking it twice in rapid succession thus sounding the lowest note. The effect is a rattling sound like a strongly pronounced r”.
I have recently had the pleasure of teaching Appalachian students. It was interesting to find how much vocabulary they share with Scots. Birl is a word that has made the transatlantic crossing. Michigan writer Stewart White uses it in The Forest (1903) to describe
“The birling matches, wherein two men on a single log try to throw each other into the river by treading, squirrel fashion, in faster and faster rotation".
Closer to home, it is now sometimes used for a turn or a shot. Why not gie it a birl?
This Scots Word of the Week was written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionaries.
First published 17th June 2013.