Jen (ylla) wrote,

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in which I am being language log

I'm reading a book about the Border Reivers, by Alistair Moffat. And I'm generally enjoying it - it's well and interestingly written, and manages to cover a good bit of the span of Scottish (and Northern English) history from a fairly unusual viewpoint.

But every so often in the text it has a box of information about an interesting sideline, and I found the following quite bizarre.

Nowt, Ousen and Kyne
Even the fatter editions of the Oxford English Dictionary make no mentions of these words, though they are liberally sprinkled through sixteenth-century reports of reiving. They are all words for cattle and were still in use in the Borders at the end of the twentieth century. 'Ousen' is a variant on oxen (which is an older word for a castracted bull-calf or bullock) as is 'nowt', sometimes written as 'nolte'. The latter term can also mean specifically black cattle. 'Kyne' or 'kye' is a general terms for cows, but can also mean a milker. All appear to derive from Anglian words first introduced into Scotland in the seventh or eighth centuries. 'Stirk' is used to mean a yearling - either a bullock or heifer, it appears in no dictionary and yet is still in general use in the Borders. (italics mine)

The whole extract seems badly written, or edited (is 'nowt' supposed to be a variant on oxen? 'Kyne' is a plural to me, and, apparently, to the book, so can it mean 'a milker'?) but what I found oddest were the dictionary claims. The word 'stirk' is apparently common enough to be used as the usual translation of (at least the Runrig version of) the gaelic song Gamhna Gealla (White Stirks), so it seems unlikely that it wouldn't be in a dictionary at all.

Five minutes or so of investigation with the dictionaries easily available in this house (I have another English Dictionary and the Concise Scots Dictionary, but they're in a box somewhere) got me this:

Chambers' Twentieth Century Dictionary, Revised Edition (1970):
owsen, Scots form of oxen. See ox.
nowt, nout, n.(Scot.) cattle.
kyne, (Spens.) Same as kine.
kine, (B.) cows. (cf. Scots kye)
kye, ky, (Scot.) cows. (See kine)
stirk, n. a yearling or young cow or ox

Oxford Dictionary of English (2006)
kine plural noun archaic cows collectively.
stirk noun dialect a yearling bullock or heifer.

So I'll admit Oxford isn't doing so well on the first three, but the 'stirk' claim seems to be nonsense.

The online OED gives owsen as a variant spelling of 'ox'

kine, n1
Archaic pl. of COW

nowt, n1
Now Sc. and Eng. regional (north.).
1. In pl. Cattle.
2. In sing.
a. An ox; a bullock; a cow or heifer.

1. A young bullock or heifer, usually between one and two years old.
The mod. application varies in different localities. In the midland counties generally the word denotes only the female; in Scotland it is chiefly applied to the male; in northern England and Lincolnshire it is applied to either sex, often with defining word as bull-stirk, cow-, heifer-, or quey-stirk.

Language Log has talked quite a bit about the wild claims people make about language, and the ones which are more hyperbole or overextended metaphors often don't bother me, but I don't understand this one - what do you gain from making entirely false claims about the contents of dictionaries?
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