More words I don’t know . . . yet, part three

June 15, 2010

Ever wonder who McCall Smith is referring to when he mentions Harry Lauder?

I found this online along with a description of Sir Harry who according to Wikipedia was a well-known performer who dressed in Highland regalia (as seen above, note the muckle hairy sporam) and sang songs of his own composition with a Scottish theme  such as Roamin’ in the Gloamin’). More at


Crufts and other words I don’t know . . . yet

January 27, 2010

Continuing our exploration of all things unknown on the pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith . . . we find the words:

Crufts.  When a stranger issues a compliment, Angus Lordie declares that his puppies are “hardly likely to win at Crufts,” but what does he mean?  For the uninitiated Crufts is, according to the website “the worlds largest and greatest dog show.” And it is not too late to catch this year’s show, March 11-14 at the NEC in Birmingham (NEC? whatever that is! I will have to ask my son-in-law who went to university there ).  According to the website, competitions include the International Agility Championships and the ever popular Friends for Life contest, as well as best in show for which you win a silver cup large enough to hold your dog. This is not to be missed even if Cyril’s six puppies will not be featured . . .

Minger is apparently informal British for “an unattractive or unpleasant person or thing.”

And lastly for today, take a tour of Edinburgh courtesy of google maps.  See Howe Street, Scotland Street, Moray Place and other now familiar locations.  It all makes more sense even when only spied from a birds-eye view but how much more when you click on the little golden man and place him on the street of your choice. This link will bring you to Howe Street:,-3.201482&sspn=0.010403,0.025706&gl=us&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Howe+St,+Edinburgh,+Midlothian+EH3,+United+Kingdom&ll=55.956384,-3.2023&spn=0.010307,0.025706&t=h&z=15&layer=c&cbll=55.956106,-3.20218&panoid=ESGaH33nmfcL76x1LN_SvA&cbp=12,114.06,,0,5

And this incredibly long link will take you to Scotland Street (where there is no 44):,-3.20218&sspn=0.004901,0.012853&gl=us&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Scotland+St,+Edinburgh,+Midlothian+EH3,+United+Kingdom&ll=55.959339,-3.194768&spn=0.005153,0.012853&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=55.959509,-3.194869&panoid=-wRZpcRkTo8P17bHwk3b9Q&cbp=12,316.09,,0,5

I hope Bertie lives behind one of the lovely blue doors.

Words I don’t know . . . yet!

January 25, 2010

I am determined to mine every nugget of pleasure out of The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by looking up all the words I don’t know . . . yet. Mind you, it is rare for me to not know all the words in a book. But the latest 44 Scotland Street novel by Alexander McCall Smith has me stymied. Is it the setting?  I don’t remember this problem with The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, the book that introduced me to the delights of Alexander McCall Smith. That book was set in Botswana but this one is set in Edinburgh, a city I have never visited.  I do however feel some connection, some small inkling of familiarity because my handsome son-in-law, a Britalian (English mum, Italian dad) proposed to my beautiful daughter atop Arthur’s Seat four years ago just moments before a torrential downpour. We still have pictures of them, the bright happiness beaming through their smiles, faces haloed by hoods pulled so tight against the driving rain that their heads reminded me of Teletubbies.

Arthur's Seat on a summer evening. Unfortunately Dan proposed in December.

And one of our oft recited family stories comes from Edinburgh. It goes like this.  My husband once tried to order a half-pint in a pub in Edinburgh.  He had already downed a pint and wanted a bit more, but the bartender leaned across the bar and looked him in the eye and growled, “No man will drink a half-pint in my pub!” A half-pint is a lady’s drink, you see, something any self-respecting Scotsman would know.

On to the mystery words:

Mendacious, an adjective that means lying, not telling the truth.  As in “Olive’s account of the incident in which the teacher had pinched her ear was at the very least confused, and more likely mendacious.”  In other words, the little brat Olive, torturix of our beloved Bertie was lying when she accused Miss Harmony of pinching her ear.

Wittering. I read the sentence to my family and asked them what they thought it meant: “”He could switch it off in the face of constant wittering,” found on page 43 and my daughter, Sarah, thought it meant  whining but the definition of witter (which was not found in my dictionary) is, according to Wiktionary, to speak at length on a trivial subject. I am not sure whom we should pity more: Julia whose honeymoon has not yet begun, yet her groom already see her attempts at conversation as wittering or the prince of narcissism, Bruce, who has stepped on the path of almost certain unhappiness by marrying for all the wrong reasons.

Byres. Now I feel quite foolish because this is one of those words that you see quite often in English novels and yet, when I read it with my new dedication to understanding-every-word I found that I could not pin point what it meant.  A hedge perhaps?  But it means simply a barn, specifically one for keeping cattle. All I can say in duhhh  . . . .

Muckle Hairy Sporran

January 20, 2010

I adore Alexander McCall Smith, so when learned that a new 44 Scotland Street novel was to be released in paperback, I ordered a copy even though it would be months before it shipped. It arrived last week. This morning I got up and saw rain washing away my beloved snow and was comforted by the thought of spending the day curled up with my new book.

But I was only on page 22 before I was confounded. What on earth did McCall Smith mean by “muckle hairy sporran”?  Was it a Scottish rodent? Or perhaps some Scottish delicacy? Would you like fries with that muckle hairy sporran? I suspected that it was something any kindergartner in Edinburgh would easily comprehend, but alas, I live in suburban Washington, D.C. and had never heard of a sporran much less a muckle hairy sporran. First I looked up muckle which, when used as an adjective, means (in archaic Scottish) very big. That was easy enough. Then I googled sporran  . .  and found a shop that sells them, yes, those little furry purses that Scotsmen sling low over their kilts. I’ve always admire the Scots, so at ease with their masculinity they wear a skirt AND carry purse and still look manly! The shop sold all kinds of sporran from “full-dress” sporran to “daywear” sporran to “piper” sporran (for you bag-pipers) made of everything from seal skin to chinchilla, arctic fox, badger and black and white rabbit–with tassels!  There is even a little flask sized to tuck into your sporran for carrying a wee dram to warm ye when the cold Scottish mist rolls in.

Frances MacNab as painted by RaeburnBut I didn’t fully catch the drift of McCall Smith’s reference, which refers to a portrait of Francies MacNab rendered by the Scottish artist Henry Raeburn, until I found the portrait online.  McCall Smith described MacNab as “draped in tartan and wearing a muckle hairy sporran.”

Here dear reader, to enhance your reading pleasure, is MacNab in all his glory:  Now wasn’t that fun!