Scottish word of the week: Clanjamfrie

A clanjamfrie at Trafalgar Square, London. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
A clanjamfrie at Trafalgar Square, London. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT could refer to a rowdy set of football fans at the pub; a teenager’s messy, dimly-lit bedroom; even some of the frenzied scenes observed over Black Friday.

The word clanjamfrie (alternative spelling: clanjamfry) is a pliable word that, simply, describes chaos.

Ian Crofton’s Dictionary of Scottish Phrase and Fable describes clanjamfrie as meaning “a disorderly rabble; a brouhaha or rumpus; a collection of worthless items.”

Sir Walter Scott is credited with introducing it to the wider public via a book, The Black Dwarf, published in 1816.

”And what will ye do, if I carena to thraw the keys, or draw the bolts, or open the grate to sic a clanjamfrie?” asks the ‘old dame’ of the Tower of Westburnflat to Earnscliffe and the Elliots, who are refused entry to the tower.

The insinuation doesn’t have to be a negative one, though. In 1999, The Herald described in approving terms an assembly of people at the opening of the Scottish Parliament: “As the last of the children’s banners swept down the Mound, the guests, by now a wholly disordered clamjamfrey, ambled back up the hill for their lunch in Parliament Hall”.

The origins of the clanjamfrie are, at best, opaque. One attempt at an explanation contends that the first half of the word, “clan”, is a simple way to refer to a group, while the second part is a proxy for “jampher”, which denotes someone who jeers or mocks - this would make sense where clanjamfrie is used to denote men braying at a bookies, for example.


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