SWITHER v. to be in two minds, to hesitate
There are several different words in the Dictionary of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk) with the form swither. This is the one that means to be in a state of uncertainty, to be undecided about something or to falter. The earliest examples date from the sixteenth century, and many refer to faltering hearts, as in:
“With that his hairt begowd to swidder”
from George Bannatyne’s Manuscript written in Tyme of Pest (1568), or this quotation from Satirical Poems of the Time of the Reformation (1570):
“throw feirfull dreid, Your hartis mak to swidder”.
And a couple of centuries later, in James Duff’s A Collection of Poems (1816), we find:
“My flesh crap closer to my skin, And e’en my heart began to swither”.
When the switherer is not human, to swither can mean to have a doubtful appearance, or to fluctuate or hover about. It is in this sense that we see it in Robert Bains’s In Glasgow Streets (1898):
“The grey, dull rain-clood swithers”
and in this from Catriona Malan in Scottish Short Stories (1986):
“Behind her, the window where in winter she had watched flake upon flake swither down, unable to follow one to the ground”.
But it is in the sense of being undecided that swithering is most familiar. From the eighteenth century “There’s nae time to swidder ’bout the thing” (from Alexander Ross’s 1768 The Fortunate Shepherdess) to the twenty-first century “Swither over doing that, or making coffee…” (The Herald, 2000) the sense of hesitating to make a decision is clear.
In a similar vein we read in Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae (1889):
“I might have stood there swithering all night”
and in Liz Lochhead’s Bagpipe Muzak (1991):
“Anyway, she orders the smoked salmon straight away, while buggerlugs is swithering over the part on our menu called Soup Kitchen…”.
Scots Word of the Week is written by Ann Ferguson of Scottish Language Dictionaries
First published 13th June 2016.