SHEVEL v. to distort, twist out of shape
Despite appearances, this word is unconnected with the English ‘dishevelled’, which is derived from Old French and originally referred specifically to messy hair. The Scots shevel (commonly spelt schevill in Older Scots) is probably of Germanic origin, and means to distort, make awry, or twist out of shape. It is often applied to the mouth or face, as in this early example from Montgomerie’s The Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (a1585):
“Sum schevilland thair chaftis, [jaws] and slavere [slavery] chekis”.
To shevel one’s mouth had an implication of twisting or thrusting out the jaw, as shown by this quote from G. McIndoe’s Poems and Songs (1805):
“A mouth but shavel’d looks, when choosin’ To bite the nose”.
And the fact that this is not an attractive feature is illustrated by this extract from Dougal Graham’s Collected Writings:
“The deil’s on the tap o’ the mou’, sheavling his mouth at me”.
Shevel was sometimes reduced to shile, whose meaning is clearly explained in this 1895 quotation from the Transactions and Journal of the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society:
“The one who ‘shiled’ best. i.e., the one who made the ugliest face”.
This form can be seen in John Halliday’s The Rustic Bard (1847):
“How brainless dundrums sneer an’ wink, An’ shan’ an’ shile, and leering blink”
and in John MacTaggart’s The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia (1824):
“[He] was just a grubbing, shyling cuif [fool]”.
Hence there are expressions such as shily-moued, which means ‘having a wry or twisted mouth, with an undershot lip’, and shavelin or shavel-gabbit; examples of the latter appear in Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd (1725):
“Ye’ll gar me stand! ye sheveling-gabit Brock”
and in John Galt’s The Howdie (1823):
“The cold made him there shavelin gabbit”.
Scots Word of the Week is written by Ann Ferguson of Scottish Language Dictionaries. First published October 11th 2016.