John Jamieson: The man who saved Scots’ tongue – with help from his landlady

John Jamieson, whose dictionary is credited with keeping the Scots language alive. Picture: National Galleries
John Jamieson, whose dictionary is credited with keeping the Scots language alive. Picture: National Galleries
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HE WAS the founding father of Scots lexicography, whose diligent work at the beginning of the 19th century helped preserve the country’s native language for future generations and inspire a succession of writers to use their own tongue.

But the first study of the life and times of the man who compiled the world’s first complete dictionary of Scots language has revealed his earliest contributor was his Forfar landlady, who helped inspired him to pursue the ambitious project after 
giving him examples of Angus dialect.

It also details the vital role played by Sir Walter Scott in helping John Jamieson produce his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, described as “the equal of Dr Johnson’s English dictionary,” showing how the famous author contributed scores of previously uncredited entries to the landmark work and its supplement.

Revered by authors including Hugh MacDiarmid, who used it to shape his poetic output, Jamieson’s dictionary has long been regarded as a crucial groundwork which kept alive the Scots language at a time when it was in danger of falling into obscurity.

He warned of the “peculiar disadvantages” suffered by the tongue after the 1707 Act of Union, pointing out that as it was “no longer written in public deeds, or spoken in those assemblies which fix the standard of national language, its influence has gradually declined”.

First published in 1808, his dictionary amassed nearly 15,000 entries, and served as the foundation for later works such as the Scottish National Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, which culled hundreds of entries from Jamieson.

While Scott’s influence on Jamieson is well known in lexicography circles, with the author supporting the dictionary financially, the book by Susan Rennie, Jamieson’s Dictionary of Scots: The Story of the First Historical Dictionary of the Scots Language, sheds new light on his role.

Dr Rennie, an Edinburgh-based lexicographer and author, said: “It’s a tremendously important work, comparable to the great ballad collectors, preserving Scots at a time when it was seen to be disappearing.

“Many of the central building blocks in the OED came from Jamieson, and Scots should regard it as the equal of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. It’s a hugely important work in European lexicography.”

Born in Glasgow in 1759, Jamieson grew up in a family of dissenters. As the only surviving son in a family with an invalid father, he entered Glasgow University aged just nine. Later, as a minister and father of 17, he began collecting ancient and modern words around 1788, taking notes in a two-penny paper book.

The task would go on to 
occupy his time for nearly two decades, often writing his dictionary on scraps of household letters such as baker’s receipts. He published a supplement in 1825, and continued making revisions until his death in 1838.

Dr Rennie’s book, published by Oxford University Press, details how his Jamieson’s first contributor to the dictionary was the landlady at his Forfar ministry.

In a letter to an acquaintance in October 1787, Jamieson describes her as a “true Angussian” from whom he had “picked up a few words”.

It also charts for the first time a host words offered up by the creator of Ivanhoe. The entries provided by Scott include besom, which he described as a “low woman or prostitute,” and screed, defined as a “long revel” or “hearty drinking bout”.