The Scots had a word (or two) for it
by Dale Short
Jul 02, 2012 | 447 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dale Short
Dale Short
With America being a land of immigrants, it’s not uncommon for two different languages to be spoken in the same household. At my grandparents’ house, the second language was English.

The first was Scots, or Irish, or whatever dilution of our native tongues followed us from the British Isles whence we came, through the Smokey Mountains and into Smithville, Mississippi, whereon we took a sharp left toward Walker County.

I’m told by history books (one of the coolest being “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,” by David Hackett Fisher) that some of the phrases in that brogue were in use during Shakespeare’s time and even earlier. All I know is that they had a nice ring to them, and that as my memory fades I wish I had written more of them down, especially since the televisionization of America continues to stir local dialects beyond recognition into the same big blah-blah 24/7 aural soup.

”Shillelagh” was one of my favorites, despite its violent connotations, as in, “Somebody ought to take a shillelagh to that feller, make him straighten up.” The English translation is “a wooden walking stick, club, or cudgel,” but the fact that such sticks had a knob at the end made them especially useful for whomping the daylights out of somebody who refused to, for instance, straighten up.

Another old term I liked was “dinktum” (as in, “Well, ain’t that just the dinktum?”) which was in such common usage by all our neighbors in Shanghi, Alabama, that I assumed it was ordinary English. Until I went off to college and discovered that when I used the word in conversation, people looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign tongue.

The nearest modern English equivalent I can think of is, “Just the ticket,” as in, “I tell you, old Jim’s new mechanized pea-sheller is the dinktum.” Or as one Scots-Irish dictionary defines it, “Genuine; true.” My family’s usage tended more toward the variation, “the solution to a problem; exactly the item called for in a situation.”

(In defense of the folks I went to college with, I later found that the pronunciation preferred by the educated class of the British Isles is “dinkum,” but that’s a minor point. “I say dinktum, you say dinkum,” as the old Broadway song reminds us.)

What brings the whole subject to mind is that I consider myself a connoisseur of inexpensive mechanical items (to me, the term “gadget” is demeaning) that serve a simple purpose with distinction and simplicity. No frills, bells, whistles, or extra expense.

The most recent of these discoveries I’ve been blessed to make is a plain old-fashioned back scratcher.

Well, maybe not “plain.” All the other back scratchers I’ve seen were designed in a dainty fashion, with their scratching portions composed of little blunt wooden or vinyl teeth appropriate to, say, a lady of a certain age with somewhat delicate sensibilities (Scots-Irish translation: “granny-woman”).

Our new scratcher, which I found after a long search on the Internet, is anything but delicate. Think stainless steel, with a telescoping rod, and a rack of tines at the business end that are roughly the spacing and sharpness of a small garden rake.

Paradise. If your back even thinks of itching after a session with this booger, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself. But then, I’ve always believed that personal grooming products are not for wimps. If something like a back scratcher (or even a skin cleanser, for that matter) can’t take off at least the top layer of your skin in the process, you’ve been gypped—or to use the term named for my family, Shortchanged.

“Dinktum” (or even “dinkum,” for that matter) is such a fun and functional word I hope it’ll come back into popular use: “That new phone app you’ve got is the dinktum, dude!”

Or even, “I swear, if my cell phone keeps dropping calls and losing messages, I’m going to take a shellelagh to it.”

If there’s one thing you can say for my ancestors, when it came to covering all of life’s bases, they were the dinktum.

Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 p.m. on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at, and is archived afterward on his website.