The house sparrow has a number of names in Scots. Perhaps the commonest are spug and speug with their diminutive forms spuggie and speuggie, but we also see sprug, spur, spurdie and sprauch. The latter appears in Blackwood’s Magazine (1828):
“Their numbers ... seemed to justify the humanest of boys in killing any quantity of sprauchs. ... You had but to fling a stone into any stack-yard, and up rose a sprauch-shower”.
Oh dear. And numbers seem to have diminished greatly in some places since then.
The famous fragility of the young bird is evoked in Modern Scottish Poets VI (1883, edited by D. H. Edwards):
“Wee flitt’rin, flecht’rin, half-fledged spurdie”.
Hence, spug and its variants are used figuratively of slender or small people. These wee birds have other qualities though. Little, lively and feisty people are likened to them, and their courage is recognised in John Carruthers’ A Man Beset (1927) as being inversely proportional to their size:
“Andrew was ‘a tifty speug’ - and fought hard”.
Loud sparrow song heralds Spring, and in Richt Noise (1988) Raymond Vettese drew this familiar picture:
“The trees hae tongues, birds gree, e’en the spuggies harmonise.”
There is a similar image drawn in Peevers in Parliament Square (1958) by John Oliver:
“When the linty sings sae cheerily, And the speugs are thrang at cheepin’.”
Spuggies have their uses too, in this case helping to keep slugs at bay:
“… but the spuggies chirp awaa in the buss [bush] … that kep the slugs at bay.”
(George T Watt, Gutter, 2014.)
This Scots Word of the Week was written by Chris Robinson. Visit DSL Online at https://dsl.ac.uk.