Friday, 3 September 2010

Footering Aboot...

I found an online source for Scots words. Being of the more rural persuasion, my daily language is peppered with colloquialisms unlike the big city folk here. I've always loved this word and so thought I would share this. It's a word that my grandparents would use when we were kids to either admonish us or get our bums moving. The words are analysed by Betty Kirkpatrick, the former editor of books like Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus.  

There are some Scots words which are particularly useful because they are virtually untranslatable and footer falls into this category. Footer, pronounced as this spelling suggests and also spelt fouter, is usually translated into English as fiddle, potter or trifle.

Fiddle or potter, according to context, at least give an impression of what is meant, but not so the word trifle. You might trifle with someone’s affections, but I doubt if you would footer with them.

The verb footer is frequently associated with children. They are likely to be told to stop footerin with an object, such as a pencil, when they are supposed to be giving their undivided attention to something that an adult is saying to them. Instead, they are constantly touching and turning over the said pencil — or other object — and frequently looking down at it. This can be described as fiddling but it somehow lacks character.
A particularly useful thing to footer with is one of this little figures made out of Lego. You can turn this over and over, take pieces off and put them back on again, all the while not listening to what an adult is saying. Do pass this piece of advice on to the children in the family

To footer can also mean to act in rather an aimless way, often when you should be getting on with some specific job. In order to postpone the evil moment of actually embarking on the task, you drift around in a fairly relaxed fashion, doing a bit of this and a bit of that. People who work from home are particularly familiar with this kind of footerin. This style of footer is usually translated as potter, but it sounds better in the American English version, putter…

Footer can also be used as a noun. In one of its meanings it has the sense of someone who footers in either sense. It can, therefore, refer to someone who touches and turns something over and over again or to someone who roams aimlessly from minor task to minor task. Again, the word is often applied to children, wee footers as they are.

The noun footer can also be used of a task. The task in question is an awkward one, often involving working with extremely small parts, and requiring a degree of manual dexterity. As you grow older and fingers become arthritic, more and more tasks become footers. Even something as simple as putting batteries in the remote can become a footer.

Footer has given rise to the adjective footerie. As you might expect, a footerie task is a manual one that is awkward or difficult to do because it involves intricate work or small parts that are difficult to manoeuvre into position.

Footer appears to have a rather unusual French connection. It is thought to be associated with the Old French word foutre, which, in turn, comes from the Latin word futuere, meaning, of a man, to have sex with.
You might wonder whether we could accuse Nero of footerin while Rome burned. Alas, no. According to tradition, he was not literally twiddling his thumbs during the conflagration. He was playing on a lyre.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.


  1. Great post. I love these sorts of words. I often use odd bits of lancashire dialect - my kids think I'm wierd and hubby is dumbfounded.

  2. Aaah footer :) I tend to stop myself from using footer since Mickeysoft Word and Wordperfect before it introduced into our everyday language in a wholly different context - in need of a replacement I now to opt for "puter" which sounds like a lazy txt version of potter and for me conjures up English gardens and rose pruning. I do feel that "puter" adequately conveys that when "putering" I'm actually footerin about on my computer.

    Looking forward to meeting you in Edinburgh :)

  3. @Tilly: I love that!
    @MrsW: Looking forward to it too. Ah, the perils of the Mickeysoft dictionary ;)

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