Editors of the Dictionaries of the Scots Language
are kindly supplying us with a Scots word of the month. This month, the word is:
Hogmanay – itself a term of mysterious origin, apparently from Old French – is one of those festivals that has accrued its own set of myths. From the earliest times, the event was seen as potentially disruptive to civic peace; it first appears in the written records in 1604, when, according to the Elgin Records
, one William Pattoun was 'delatit [i.e. 'charged'] to have been singand hagmonayis on Satirday'.
The custom of rowdiness – fuelled no doubt by an excess of 'small refreshments' – has, I think we can all agree, persisted.
More recent traditions have since gone – ah, who recalls Andy Stewart and The White Heather Club? – while others seem, from my own experience at least, to be more a matter of hearsay than actuality. When were you last given a lump of coal at 'first fit'?
It's not as if Scots has lacked terms for different kinds of coal, emerging from the once-powerful mining industry. Many such words are recorded in the Dictionaries of the Scots Language
: carsy coal, for instance, a kind of coal found near Bo'ness, or parrot, coal that burns with a crackling sound. Today's word, chows
(meaning 'small coal' or 'coal nut'), is another.
DSL's earliest citation chows appears in the Caledonian Mercury
in 1781: 'Smithy coal, Great coal, Chows, and Culm [i.e. 'slack', made from coal-dust]'; the latest, from John Black's Melodies and Memories
, dates from 1909: 'A gude wheen o' peats an' a hantle o' chows'.
The term seems to derive from chaw, the wooden ball used in shinty, presumably because of the resemblance in shape.
Chows then are quite small, and I imagine if you're minded to resuscitate the custom they are probably easier to pop into your pocket. But I fear the word itself has fallen away, unlikely to return.
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 can be found here.