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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Worm i the cheek

Last Wednesday was World Chocolate Day, which put me in mind of a nasty feature of the COVID lockdown - the cancellation of dental appointments. Although I know that many folk have had matters a lot worse than me, I felt rather sorry for myself with toothache. I had worm-i-the-cheek.


According to the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (, the expression worm-i-the-cheek was first recorded from the middle of the nineteenth century in a learned journal of the time:


“Toothache is by the country people called ‘The worm’, from a notion they have that this painful affection is caused by a worm in the tooth or jawbone.”


The Lallans poet Hugh McDiarmid liked the word and incorporated it into his so-called “synthetic Scots”, deploying it in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926):


“Man’s a fiky bairn/ Wi’ bellythraw, ripples, and worm-i’-the-cheek!”.


McDiarmid probably derived his knowledge of the word’s meaning from his close study of John Jamieson’s great Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808).


I didn’t think I was being fiky (i.e. fussy) when I complained about my sair teeth, so I took myself to the surregerie (surgery) as soon as it re-opened. It seemed there was a problem with what, in Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders, they call an aisle-tuith (molar). Aisle derives from the Old Norse “jaxl”, meaning “grinder”, which is rather evocative and captures the tooth’s function very precisely.


I hoped a good clenging (cleaning) would do the trick. But alas no, and I am now saving up for an implant. I’ll simply (as they say in Aberdeen and Banffshire) have to cramsh (grit my teeth) and put up with the bill. But at least it looks like I have avoided wallies!



This Scots Word of the Week was written by Jeremy Smith, Professor of English Philology in the University of Glasgow.