“It’s no a skirt!”
Philip McCarr leapt to his feet, which were a fair ways down. He was not referring to his kilt, for once; the hapless Arthur Watkins had misread Philip’s entry for the word tasting. “It’s skirl, man!”
Arthur was slightly taken aback and tried to make sense of this. “A… it’s a girl with a skirt?”
Philip’s naturally red colour saturated a bit more. “It’s no girl and no skirt, it’s skirl! Th’ soond th’ bagpipes make!” He turned to the room and declaimed what at first sounded like a rather nasty imprecation but in fact was a descriptive passage from Robert Burns’s “Tam o’ Shanter”: “He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl, Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.” He paused thoughtfully for a moment and said, “Nice word, that, dirl. Cognate wi’ thrill. Same meanin’, like, or ‘to ring or vibrate’.”
Arthur was still confused for a moment. “I’m sorry, I… Oh, s-k-i-r-l. Yes of course. What bagpipes do.”
Philip threw his hands up. “Theeeeere y’have it, man.” He dropped himself back into his chair and tended to his vocal cords with a glass of Scotch.
“A shrill sound,” said Montgomery Starling-Byrd. “Or, as a verb, to make a shrill sound.”
“Ah wonder,” interjected the gathering’s southern belle, Grace Sherman, “whethah shrill and skirl are cognate.”
Montgomery angled his head back towards her. “One might suspect it, given that an earlier form of skirl is skrill, and it came from Scandinavian, and sk before a high front vowel has in modern Swedish and Norwegian become a palatal fricative. But shrill is traced to German, and research does not go past that on this one.”
“You know, I’m sure, tha ither meaning,” Philip said to Montgomery, and I had the sense he was hoping Montgomery did not.
“Another meaning?” Montgomery said. “I’m sure I don’t use it enough even for one meaning.” He smiled pleasantly. Montgomery could of course never gladly give a Scotsman the upper hand.
“My quote fra ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ wis relevant tae this as weel,” Philip said. “For ’twas auld Nick himself blowing the pipes, and wee witchies dancing a twirl and casting off their duddies till they were ainley in their sarks.”
“Chemises,” I gamely translated, not sarcastically.
“And tae fly wi’ a sweeping or swirling motion – weel, th’ birds may do it, but so may a sark. And that, too, is to skirl. Different word, tho.”
“So,” said Grace, getting up gracefully, “if a girl’s skirt and shirt made a twirl or a swirl like a school of krill” – she began to swing and swirl her flowing garments – “and in the skirl caught a curl and hurled free” – she spun faster and threw off her shawl – “then the girl might skirl, too.” Which Grace immediately did – she let out a short shriek, which it soon became evident was actually involuntary: along with her shawl, she had lost her blouse and her footing, and she landed squarely in Philip’s lap.
Philip looked down at her with an approving smile and toasted her with his glass of Scotch. “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
The full text of “Tam o’ Shanter” may be read at www.gutenberg.org/files/1279/1279-h/1279-h.htm#2H_4_0316.