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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

A Relic of Former Days

19th February 2015

An interesting episode in Scotland’s linguistic history was recently highlighted in the press (Scotsman, 19 February) when it was reported that a very rare dictionary of English was put up for auction on eBay. The dictionary was published in 1763 by the Edinburgh printers and booksellers Alexander Donaldson and John Reid and what makes it very interesting is the section devoted to ‘Scotticisms’ and their explanation for English visitors to Scotland.


The dictionary must been seen in the context of the time. Scotland had been joined in a political union with England in 1707 and since then her ruling class had consciously tried to anglicise its habits and language and begun to dislocate themselves from the general population. In 1754 a Select Society was established in Edinburgh for the promotion of various arts and sciences. When Thomas Sheridan visited Edinburgh, in 1761, and gave a series of lectures on English and elocution, the Select Society founded the Select Society for Promoting the Reading and Speaking of the English Language in Scotland.


The buzz word in those days was ‘improvement’ and the upper classes – who now had to compete with the English - hoped to ‘improve’ their language by ridding themselves of Scots. Donaldson and Reid’s dictionary was a response to the aims of the Select Society. By cataloguing ‘Scotticisms’ they hoped to gradually weed them out and warn English visitors against them. The dictionary declared  “...accents properly placed, to facilitate the true pronounciation...The spelling throughout reduced to an uniform and consistent standard...” which was an ambitious hope when we consider that even today, 250 years on, Americans and English still cannot agree on a standard spelling or vocabulary.


Donaldson, Reid, and others in the 18th century, did not foresee the long-term dislocation, and linguistic abuse of generations of Scottish school children caused by their ideology, but the relic dictionary does provide a fascinating window on those times.