Word Routes

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Does Robert Burns Make You Feel Ramfeezled?

The 11th edition of the venerable yet idiosyncratic Chambers Dictionary has just been published. Unlike the 11th editions of its lexicographical rivals Merriam-Webster's Collegiate and the Concise Oxford (everybody's going to 11 these days), the big news surrounding the latest Chambers is not about its new words. Rather, the British press has focused on some remarks made in the introduction to the dictionary, written by Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman. Paxman evidently likes to poke fun at all things Scottish, but he stepped over the line when he referred to the work of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, as nothing more than "sentimental doggerel."

The jab at Burns came in a discussion of obscure words, which Chambers has quite a few of. Paxman first described himself as forswunk, defined by Chambers as "overworked." (It's the past participle of forswink, meaning "to exhaust by labor," in case you didn't know.) "It's not exactly a word one hears every day, but, as a term to describe dog-tiredness it has a pleasing euphony," Paxman wrote. Then he added, "Although I'm afraid I find the Scottish national poet no more than a king of sentimental doggerel, one might as well have used his ramfeezled to describe our state."

Ramfeezled means "fatigued, overpowered," and Burns used it in his "Second Epistle To J. Lapraik" (1785) to describe his "awkart [awkward] Muse":

The tapetless, ramfeezl'd hizzie,
She's saft at best an' something lazy.

According to the website The Vocabulary of Robert Burns, tapetless means "without energy; heedless,"and saft means "soft," while hizzie means "a lively young woman" (a rather polite definition, since it's a Scottish variant of hussy). He also disparages the Muse as "ye thowless jad," where thowless means "slack, useless," and jad is a form of jade, another term for a disreputable woman. Hardly the reverential treatment usually reserved for the Muses of Greek mythology.

But the invective that Burns hurls at his Muse is nothing compared to the outpouring of Scottish vitriol at Paxman after the Glasgow Herald revealed what he had written in the Chambers introduction. Calling Burns' work "sentimental doggerel" is "absolute nonsense," said Gerard Carruthers, an expert on the poet at Glasgow University, adding, "only someone who has never read Burns could say that." Other reactions were even more extreme. One letter writer found all sorts of Burnsian terms to describe Paxman: coof, gawkie, gowk and vogie. (The first three are pejorative words for a thoughtless or foolish person, while vogie means "vain.") And Scottish author Andrew O'Hagan proposed that Paxman be banned from fishing in Scotland's rivers, apparently one of the presenter's pastimes. O'Hagan went on to make a colorful suggestion about where exactly Paxman could stick his fishing rod.

Ironically, Chambers is written and published in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. (There's a long lexicographical tradition in Scotland, a country that also gave us James Murray and William Craigie, both editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.) Chambers editor in chief Mary O'Neill told the BBC that she didn't agree with Paxman's comments, but didn't want to censor him. "I think we are strong enough as a nation to take it on the chin," she said.

Paxman is hardly the first English observer to have trouble appreciating Burns. In 1787 the English poet William Cowper wrote approvingly of Burns, but noted that some of his countrymen were immune to his pleasures:

Poor Burns loses much of his deserved praise in this country through our ignorance of his language. I despair of meeting with any Englishman who will take the pains I have taken to understand him. His candle is bright, but shut up in a dark lantern. I lent him to a very sensible neighbour of mine; but his uncouth dialect spoiled all; and, before he read him through, he was quite ramfeezled.

If you'd like to read Burns but are stumped by his vocabulary, I recommend the mammoth Dictionary of the Scots Language, a wonderful resource that has been put online free of charge by the Scottish Language Dictionaries program. Ramfeezled no more!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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