Scots Word of the Season: ‘Clamjamfry’

clamjamfry n. (disparaging) a company, crowd of people, rabble; rubbish, junk

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) is credited with introducing to the wider world many Scottish words including Gael ‘Celt; Scottish Highlander’, which appears in The Lady of the Lake (1810), and Glaswegian ‘a person from or living in Glasgow’, which appears in Rob Roy (1817). Although Glaswegian has endured, some consider it ‘incorrect’ and it provoked strong words from the Glasgow Herald newspaper in 1923 — one writer thought it ‘both ugly and absurd […] Let us in the name of etymology and common sense be Glasgovians’. (Compare for example Shavian ‘an admirer of George Bernard Shaw’.)

Not all of the terms Scott popularised are now (or were then) exclusive to Scotland, and The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) credits him with the first written use of over 460 words and phrases, spanning the lexicon from All Soul’s Eve‘the evening before All Soul’s Day’, to zizz ‘a buzzing noise made by a wheel turning at speed’. His visibility and influence as a writer has also resulted in the inclusion in the OED of a number of more unusual terms which failed to achieve wider currency, such as appeteesement ‘hunger’, dislikelihood ‘improbability’ and doodle ‘play the bagpipes’. Such inventiveness is not always celebrated. The Victorian OED editors viewed his spelling of embroglio ‘entanglement’ as no more than a ‘[b]ad form of imbroglio‘ and took umbrage at his term ambagitory ‘wordy’, deeming it ‘not etymologically defensible’ – the ‘problem’ being Scott’s creative adaptation of the Latin word ambāges ‘circumlocutions’ on analogy with words like dilatory and transitory.

Given the twists and turns of Scott’s linguistic experimentations, it is perhaps appropriate to dwell slightly longer on the Scots word clanjamfry, a variant of clamjamfry, typically used dismissively of a collection of people or things. Scott is credited with the first written example of this term. In The Black Dwarf (1816), when Earnscliffe and the Elliots, seeking Willie Graeme, are refused entry to the Tower of Westburnflat, the ‘old dame’ of the Tower asks: ‘”And what will ye do, if I carena to thraw the keys, or draw the bolts, or open the grate to sic a clanjamfrie?”‘

As with most words first used by Scott, it is hard to know whether he is simply the first person to write it down in a document dictionary-makers would later regard as culturally important, or whether he is directly responsible for this new lexical contrivance. It has been conjectured that the clan– of clanjamfry may imply a connection with the idea of a clan or family, which would be apt in relation to the tale’s belligerent Elliots, and with Elliot being a well-known, kenspeckle Scottish Border clan. As for the jamfry aspect, it is perhaps appealing to connect it to Scots jampher ‘a jeerer, mocker’ which Dictionary of the Scots Language identifies in several nineteenth century sources. Nevertheless, this theory is as yet not proven, and the ultimate solution to the word’s origins remains obscure.

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Maggie Scott

Maggie Scott is Lecturer in English Language and Literature at the University of Salford. She is the author of the Scots Word of the Season regular column in The Bottle Imp.

More articles by Maggie Scott


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