skellum n. rogue, scoundrel, rascal
Skellum is one of the many insults used by Kate of her eponymous hero husband Tam in Robert Burns' famous poem Tam o' Shanter:
"She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum, A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum".
The popularity of the poem has no doubt aided the word's survival in Scots, but due to various forms of linguistic stravaigin, skellums are not restricted to Scotland. Burns provides us with the earliest known example of the word in a Scottish text, but skellum is also found in seventeenth-century English, for example Ben Johnson's poem, Coryat's Crudities (1611):
"Going to steal 'em He findeth soure graspes and gripes from a Dutch Skelum".
The Dutchness of this particular skellum is also indicative of the word's etymology, from Dutch schelm. The influence of Dutch on South African English no doubt explains why skellum or skelm is still known in parts of Africa today.
In Doris Lessing's novel, African Laughter (1992), we find this example:
"You can't leave a car for five minutes without some skellum stealing it."
And in Alexander McCall Smith's The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2004), Mr Matekoni uses it on discovering a dead hoopoe, "'You skellums,' he shouted. 'I saw this! I saw you kill this bird!'".
Other Scottish writers have mentioned skellums in twentieth-century texts. John Buchan used it in his novel Greenmantle:
"I got into German territory all right, and then a skellum of an officer came along, and commandeered all my mules"
and it appears in Edwin Muir's poem, The Birkie and the Howdie:
"The skellum callan goaved at her fell drumlie: 'Ye tocherless wanchancie staumrel hizzie'".
Recent written examples of Scots skellums are fairly rare, and it may be that this word is now largely remembered from verse, and falling out of use. If you have any evidence to the contrary, however, we would be delighted to hear from you.
This week's Scots word was written by Dr Maggie Scott. This week's word is spoken by the writer and researcher Eric Swanepoel, who grew up in South Africa and now lives in Edinburgh.
First published 29th January 2007