smeddum n. spirit, energy, drive, vigorous resourcefulness
Smeddum (2001) is the apt title of recent collection of works by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, a writer whose brief but intense writing career was marked by virr and vigour.
Still very much alive in non-literary contexts, Smeddum is also the name of a homeopathic practitioner's website. Derived from Old English smedma, meaning "fine flour", which was also the original sense of the word in Scots, smeddum has undergone a number of semantic mutations during the centuries.
The earliest recorded Scottish use is found in the seventeenth century, in an entry in the Burgh Records of Edinburgh for 1667, with the instruction that:
"the millers nor non in their names sweip any smedome or swyne meet (meat) within four els of the hoper or trough and what they sweip without that to be laid in the farthest corner of the mill and that their be no selling of it".
Slightly later, the word was used to signify a medicinal powder, as in Robert Burns' poem To a Louse (1786):
"O for some rank, mercurial rozet, Or fell, red smeddum".
Red smeddum is thought to be red precipitate of mercury, used as an insecticide. In the eighteenth century it could also refer to finely-ground lead ore. From these various powdery meanings, smeddum developed other uses, including "the pith, strength or essence of a substance", from which we get the modern meaning. This sense was also known to Burns, who used it in 1787 in a letter to Willie Nicol to describe two women with:
"as muckle smeddum and rumblegumtion as the half o' some Presbytries that you and I baith ken".
Lack of pith or mettle often draws criticism, as in the following example from J. White's Moss Road (1932):
"Ye poor smeddumless stock, all ye can do is to scare a bairn".
Scots has an excellent hoard of terminology for everything from the smeddumfu' to the fushionless.
This week's Scots word was written by Dr Maggie Scott.
First published 30th October 2006