A highlight of many Burns Suppers this year would have been a recitation of probably the Bard’s finest poem, Tam O’Shanter. I don’t think I was alone in pausing at this line when I first read it:
‘While we sit bousing at the nappy’
(While we sit drinking strong ale)
For most present-day Scots-speakers, the word nappy has, however, other primary meanings, illustrated by the beginning of Liz Niven’s ironic poem, ‘The New Mannie’:
If ye want a nappy chynged just gie us a bell,
fir A’m a new mannie, can ye no tell?
The present-day form nappy (U.S. diaper) is a shortened form of napkin. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries napkin was commonly used in English not only for the towel used for wiping fingers – the older meaning -- but also, from the middle of the nineteenth century, for material enclosing babies’ bottoms. The shortened form seems to have become more common gradually during the twentieth century, presumably to avoid potentially embarrassing confusions.
Nappy in relation to ale or beer is first recorded in the Dictionary of the Scots Language at the beginning of the eighteenth century, where it is used as an adjective meaning ‘foaming, brisk, strong, rich, heady’. It seems to have been used in Scots as a noun for ‘(strong) ale, beer’ from the late 1700’s, with Burns himself as the earliest recorded witness. The noun is found in English texts a little earlier but dies out sooner; John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet, refers to ‘cheering nappy’ as late as 1820, but he probably pinched the word from Burns. The latest occurrence in DSL, however, dates from 1907, and the word with this meaning seems to have died out since then – except of course for guest appearances on 25th January.