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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, December 28, 2012

Happy Hogmanay!

Those of you who have read my book Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do with Pigs know that pigs crop up in the most unexpected places, etymologically speaking. And so you may think that today's word of the week is yet another example. But in fact "hogmanay", the word used in Scotland to designate New Year's Eve, has nothing to do with pigs. 
Edinburgh on Hogmanay

This unusual word probably comes from hoguinané, a Norman French form of Old French aguillanneuf. The first element of aguillanneuf  is of unknown origin, tacked on to l'an neuf (the new year). This was a shout with which people (especially children) greeted the New Year and demanded a New Year's gift (rather as children shout "Trick or treat!" on Halloween). The gift was traditionally oatcakes (a round, flat, not very sweet oat biscuit), from which custom the day also came to be known as "cake day". 

Just to be confusing, there are some actual cakes traditionally eaten in Scotland on Hogmanay, but they are not called cakes. One is is the "Scotch bun" (also known as "black bun"), a spiced fruitcake with a pastry crust. Another is the delightfully named "cloutie dumpling". This version of Christmas pudding is wrapped in a cloth (a "clout" in Scots English, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word clut, originally meaning a piece of something but quite quickly applied specifically to pieces of fabric).

Oatcakes, black buns, cloutie dumplings... all washed down with a wee dram, no doubt. Or a not so wee one.

So I'll wish you Happy Hogmanay, and all the very best in 2013!



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  1. Happy New Year to you!

    And thank you for your work!

    E.T. :)

  2. I've wondered if Hogwarts school/castle, which is also supposedly located in Scotland, shares a lignistic root or two with this word.

    1. Doubtful. I expect JK Rowling was just playing with "hog" = pig and "warts".

  3. A guid New Year to you, Katherine, and lang may yer lum reek!
    Norman D. Lawson


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.