Word of the day: Sleekit

THERE aren’t many people, certainly in Scotland, who would be unaware of the most famous use of the Scots word ‘sleekit’.

The Robert Burns poem ‘To a Mouse’ begins with a perfect description of the rodent: “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie’, conjuring up an image of a shy creature that prefers the shadows to the limelight.

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The term has since come to be used almost exclusively in a disparaging fashion, describing someone or something as harbouring oleaginous qualities and becoming a synonym for slimy or sly - more akin to a weasel than a mouse.

The Bard’s almost tender ode to the mouse is at great odds with the current definition, but the line that bore the title for John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men - ‘The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agley’ (The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry) - hints at sleekit being used as a descriptive word for someone whose plans haven’t gone accordingly.

Like many Scots words still used in the 21st century, its initial meaning has perhaps been altered - but the original definition is still clear to see.