SOUK, v., n., int
16 April was St Magnus Day, patron saint of Orkney, which put me in mind of this week’s word. Ever since Scotland emerged at the end of what scholars no longer call “the Dark Ages”, it has been a multilingual nation. A time-traveller visiting what is now Scotland around the year 1000 would encounter speakers of Old Northumbrian in the south-east, of Celtic varieties across large swathes of the country, and of Old Norse (Norroen or “Norn”), the language of the Vikings, in the far north and dotted around the coast and islands. Shetland and Orkney, in particular, were settled by many Norse speakers, as recorded in the Old Icelandic Orkneyinga saga, the earliest manuscript-witness of which survives from the fourteenth century. Native speakers of Orkney Norn were still to be encountered in the late eighteenth century, and present-day Orkney Scots retains many Norn-derived forms. One such word is souk.
According to the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk), souk/sook has several meanings, many of them derived from the Old English verb sūcan “suck”; a sook is an evocative Scots word for a toady, for instance. However, the word found in Orkney and Shetland seems to have a distinct etymology, being traced to the Old Norse noun súgr “drying wind”. There are specialised usages that seem to have survived for a long time. The antiquarian and geologist Samuel Hibbert, in his Description of the Shetland Isles (1822), referred to a “semi-putrescent” local delicacy, viz. “souked fish”, which seems - according to a 1960s citation - to have developed special properties:
“Sookit skate (muckle toucht o as an aphrodisiac ..)”.
Hugh Marwick, whose 1929 study of Orkney usage remains foundational, offers a less startling citation:
“It’s makan a bonnie sook the day”,
i.e. it’s a good drying day.
This Scots Word of the Week was written by Jeremy Smith. Jeremy Smith is Professor of English Philology in the University of Glasgow.