Editors of the Dictionaries of the Scots Language
are kindly supplying us with a Scots word of the month. This month, the word is:
My word! Goodness me!
Wow may seem a surprising word to appear as Scots Word of the Month but for a long time it seems to have been an expression of amazement, fear or admiration as exclusive to Scots as Jings! Crivvens! and Help ma boab!
It appears shortly before 1500 expressing surprise in a rather bawdy context. It is an apt exclamation in the presence of ghosts; from Douglas's Aeneid
we have 'Out on thir wandrand speritis, wow! thou cryis'.
Its respectability is confirmed by its use in James Row's Red-Shankes sermon
(1638): 'What trou ye she (the Kirk of Scotland) is flichtered with, but with a silken threed... and wow but we have taken great delight to be bound'. Dismay mingles with surprise in this last quotation.
As we move into the 18th century, there are several such examples where both surprise and sorrow are expressed. The distress in the King Henry
ballad (1783) is indisputable: 'O whan he slew his good gray-hounds, Wow but his heart was sair!' and a dramatic quotation from the Edinburgh Evening Courant
(1786) shows how the word had become associated with wae (woe): 'But, ah! waes wow! It bleaz'd up like a comet keen, An' burnt his pow'.
In spite of a partial conflation with wae, it also maintains its original sense, and is often followed by 'gin' (if) or 'but'. We find it with the former in a poem by Allan Ramsay (1718): 'And wow gin she was skeigh (shy), And mim (coy) that Da'.
There are many such words that have travelled from Scotland south over the border and across the Atlantic. The wandering nature of words and their meanings will keep lexicographers in thrall for a long time to come, exclaiming with W P Milne's Eppie Elrick
(1955) with each new vagary: 'Wow's me for 'e mystairious wyes o' Proavidence'.
Scots Word of the Month is written by editors of the Dictionaries of the Scots Language. You can sponsor a word from this national archive as a special gift for a loved one or friend. More information about word sponsorship is here.