PINGLE v to strive, contend, work laboriously
The origin of pingle is uncertain, but it may be related to the Swedish ‘pyngla’ meaning to struggle with trifling but difficult or time-consuming work. Pingle has been around in Scots since at least the early 16th century; it is used by Gavin Douglas in his translation of Virgils’s Aeneid (1513), meaning to contend with or compete against:
“Als swyft as ganye [crossbow bolt] or feddyrrit arrow fleys, That stryvys forto pyngill with the wynd”.
With a similar meaning, David Davidson refers in his Thoughts of the Season (1789) to a drunken fight in:
“The chiels began to pingle; An’ drunken carles coupin doun, Made mugs an’ yill-caups jingle”.
Hence the phrase to pingle wi a maister, meaning to contend against overwhelming odds, or attempt the impossible.
Pingle can also mean to struggle with a difficult task, or to work in a laborious way, as in C I Johnstone’s Elizabeth de Bruce (1845-6):
“This is no a pinglin, pains-taking generation”,
or this from William Wilson’s Poems (1875):
“To pingle a’ nicht at her odds and her ends!”
And from this, it can also mean to dabble or meddle with.
This sense of dealing with tiny detail gives us the noun pingling, which the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines as “minute and tedious labour of very little importance” and “the act of labouring with very little success”, the latter amply illustrated by this quotation from Alexander Ross’s Helenore or the Fortunate Shepherdess (1768):
“Wi’ my teeth I gnew the raips in twa, An’ wi’ sair pingling wan at last awa”.
As an adjective, pingly can mean either troublesome, or ineffectual – like the subject of this less than complimentary description from Anne Hepples’s House of Gow (1949):
“… a thin slip of a girl - ‘a whey-faced, pingley piece’ her Grand-Aunt Janet called her”.
Scots Word of the Week is written by Ann Ferguson of Scottish Language Dictionaries.
First published 24th May 2015.