Diarmaid Ó Muirithe


Unco is a word found as an adjective, adverb and noun, once common in Scotland, Ulster, and in the northern English counties of Northumberland, Cumberland, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. As an adjective it means unknown, strange, foreign; altered so as to be scarcely recognizable. ‘Nae safe wading in unco waters,’ advosed the Scots poet Ramsey in 1737. The Ayrshire poet, Service, in Dr Duguid (1887) has, ‘She was however at times a little unco and fey.’ The Lothian writer, Lumsden, in Sheep-head (1892) wrote of ‘the no doubt unco creature ca’d man.’

It is the same word as uncouth. hence the words uncolike, strange, strange-looking; uncolins, adverb, in a strange or odd manner; uncoly or uncolies, adverb, strangely; very much; to an extreme degree; unconess, noun, strangeness; uncosome, adjective, awkwardly or perversely disposed. Hence, ‘the kirk was unco-like to me yesterday for the want o’ you’; ‘She’s uncolies afflicted with a diarhoea of words,’ wrote the above-mentioned Service. Rutherford in a letter written in 1660, speaks of ‘niceness, dryness, and unconess in friends.’

I recently heard the word unbiddable from the lips of a Co. Waterfordman. I had though the word commonly used all over Ireland but in recent conversations with English and Scottish lexicographers they did their best to convince me that the word, which means perverse, obstinate, intractable, not to be advised has not been recorded in Ireland. Did you ever hear such nonsense! The word biddable is common here as well. I heard it recently used by a young lady who had succeeded in breaking a young colt. A good word, Crockett, in Black Douglas (1899) has, ‘A great ram-stam, unbiddable, unhallowed devil he is.’

The adjective unbideable, which means unbearable, intolerable, is not found in these parts, and from the evidence of the English Dialect Dictionary is found only in Yorkshire.

To bide is found in Scotland and in northern England meaning to bear, endure, tolerate. ‘Slighted love is sair to bide,’ sang Burns in Duncan Gray. Hence bide, noun, pain, suffering; bider, a sufferer; biding, suffering; bideless, impatient of suffering. Bide also means to need, require. In Rawnsley’s Reminicences of Wordsworth (1884) he quotes a rustic critic’s evaluation of the great man’s work: ‘Wudsworth’s potry was real hard stuff, and bided a deal of makkin.’

The most common meaning of bide is to wait a while. Poets loved the word. Shakespeare has, ‘What shall I do a while? Where bide? how live’ in Cymbaline. III, IV. In Twelfth Night he has ‘There is no woman’s sides Can bide the beating of so strong a passion.’ Chaucer has ‘For ire he quook, no lenger would he byde,’ in the Canterbury Tales.

From Old English bídan, to wait.