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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Speir

speir v. to ask a question, inquire, make inquiries, etc.

Speir, despite its incisive connotations, is not some sort of Scotticised variant of the word "spear". It instead derives from Old English spyrian and its Old Norse counterpart spyrja, which were both employed in various related senses including "to ask about" and "to investigate".

Speir appears in some of the earliest examples of Scots literature, including John Barbour's epic poem The Bruce:

"He had wonder quhat it mycht be, And on sic maner spyryt he That he knew that it wes the king".

In modern and historical Scots, speir is often followed by prepositions like "at" and "to". A late sixteenth century example occurs in King James VI's Daemonologie, a treatise on witchcraft:

"In what I can, that ye like to speir at me, I will willinglie and freelie tell my opinion".

Specific uses of the word have also developed over time. One such example is the sense "to make a proposal of marriage", illustrated by the following extract from J. C. Dibdin's Border Life (1897):

"Ye wadna speir at me, though I wad rather had you a thoosand times ... I'se warrant he's speirin' till her noo".

Asking riddles is the same as speirin guesses and if you speired someone's price you would be asking them to name their terms (usually for work), as in John Lockhart's Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837):

"Scott said ... mimicking the air and tone of a Highland lass waiting at the cross of Edinburgh to be hired for the harvest work, -- 'We've stood here an hour by the Tron, hinny, and diel a ane has speered our price'."

Typical derivatives like speirer are also well attested, as in Robin Jenkins' novel, The Thistle and the Grail (1954):

"she might say that to her faither ... He's the speirer in this family; he's the one that likes to ken what's going on."

This week's Scots word was written by Dr Maggie Scott.

First published 13th November 2006