On hirpling and other great words


Yesterday I reviewed George Mackay Brown’s Pictures in the Cave but I didn’t mention his wonderful use of language. Brown certainly seemed to have some favourite words: “hirpling” appears twice in the book, for example, as does “lucent”. Other great words in Pictures in the Cave include “erne” and “crepitated”. So, with a little help from the OED, here’s a quick guide to those words and their meaning.

To hirple – Chiefly Scottish and northern dialect. Intransitive. “To move with a gait between walking and crawling; to walk lamely, to drag a limb, to hobble. In early use said of the hare.” First recorded use c.1500.

Lucent – “Shining, bright, luminous.” First recorded use c.1500.

Erne – “An eagle.” First recorded use: Anglo-Saxon – Cynewulf Elene 29 Urigfeðera earn sang ahof, laðum on laste.

To crepitate – “To make a crackling sound, to crackle”. First recorded use 1853. (Though the oldest meaning of the word, “to break wind”, was first recorded in 1623.)

Are these lexical choices relevant? Surely they are. Just as George Mackay Brown doubted the value of so much of what passes for progress in technology, so too did he have little sympathy for the view that the novelist’s language should be wholly contemporary. In mining Scots and English for their ancient ore, he was engaging in an act of recovery as much as he was when writing about the Orcadian past.

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