It was World Whisky Day last Saturday and I’ve just had a belated Christmas treat. A brief moment of light amidst the darkness of lockdown, my wife had arranged a virtual whisky-tasting at a local distillery, admirably hosted by an ambassador and her assistant. I learned many things, not least from other participants. Have you encountered the Icelandic whisky where barley-smoking is undertaken using sheep-dung? Looking forward to trying that one!
The ambassador used today’s word, since not every whisky-making process is entirely sweet-smelling. Foustie (there are various spellings), according to the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk), is an adjective related to foost “smell mouldy”/”mouldy condition”. The words derive originally from the Old French fust “wine-barrel”, but meanings involving noxious odours quickly emerged in both Scots and English. Dr Johnson’s English Dictionary (1755) defined fust as
“a strong smell, as of a mouldy barrel”,
and an Edinburgh will from 1632 flags an obviously unwelcome legacy:
“Tua pund … of auld fuistit tabacco”.
DSL records several fascinating citations for foustie and related words. John Young’s Lays from the Poorhouse, a Glasgow temperance poetry collection from 1860, offers a grim one:
“Tho’ lang he’s lain mould’rin in death’s foustie biel” (shelter).
The anonymous but equally grim Deil’s Hallowe’en of 1856 tells us how
"Auld Satan swore, with foostin breath, He’d haud the nicht as sure as death”.
And there are extended meanings as well. In 1900, it seems, the verb foust meant - in Aberdeen - to hoard up money, while in 1920s Roxburghshire a fuist was a generalised “odd or eccentric person”. In nineteenth-century Banffshire the word had an even more specialised meaning:
“to break wind in a suppressed manner”.
Perhaps there was a sheep-dung connection.
This Scots Word of the Week was written by Jeremy Smith, Professor of English Philology in the University of Glasgow.