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Word for 20th February 2012

“ Weird n destiny”

Occurring in Old English as 'wyrd' meaning destiny, weird makes its first recorded appearance in Scots in this fatalistic comment from John Barbour's Bruce (1375): 'Werd that to the end ay driffis The varldis thingis'. Most Scots are familiar with the word, if only in the phrase 'tae dree yer ain weird' (to suffer your own fate). There are also many modern examples of the word in general use. Sheena Blackhall, in Wittgenstein's Web (1996) writes 'Sylvester's weird wis steekit?, or his fate was sealed. This saw from Allan Ramsay's A Collection of Scots Proverbs (1736) is still fresh today: 'A man may woo where he will, but wed where his wierd is'. We find it used attributively, sometimes as an element within a compound. In the Court of Session Papers (Presbytery of Garioch v. Shepherd 1794) 'Another reprobatory witness of Mr. Shepherd's was objected to, as being a common wierd-wife, or fortune-teller'. In particular, it is used by Barbour and numerous others in the phrase 'weird sister', which the Scottish National Dictionary tells us is 'one of the Parcae'. We have a very clear example of this Older Scots sense from John Rolland's Court of Venus (c1550): 'Clotho, Lachesis 'Atropos' thir thre?To ilk man geuis in warld his fatall weir[d]'he tuik guid nicht at thir weird sisteris than.' The Scottish National Dictionary goes on to tell us it occurs first in Older Scots a.1400, then in Wyntoun, 1420, in the story of Macbeth, whence it was borrowed via Holinshed by Shakespeare and from him by misunderstanding or extension of meaning into the mod. Eng. adj. weird, strange, uncanny, popularised esp. by Shelley. The chance of a word coming within the orbit of a prolific and influential writer can often determine its dominant sense and even its very existence. The weirds of words are strange indeed.

Scots Word of the Week is written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionaries