I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Margaret Gibbs.
We were sitting in late afternoon rush-hour traffic and I was trying to stay awake. It may have been six p.m. on the Pacific coast, but I had just spent ten days at a friend’s borrowed cottage in Scotland, and my body was convinced it was two a.m. My daughter and her family had met my plane and were driving me home in their van, me in the front with my son-in-law, the three teenage granddaughters chattering like birds on a wire at the back. In the middle row, my daughter was prodding my two small suitcases beside her.
“Honestly, Mum, you knew it would probably snow again, even in April. Why didn’t you take more clothes? You could have caught your death of cold!”
“Carrie,” I said, “in the first place, do you realize you’re turning into me as you get older? And in the second place, Isobel keeps winter clothes at the cottage and they were my size. I just used her coats and boots when I went outdoors.”
“So the duds were to hand,” Christopher summed up.
A protest from his oldest daughter at the back. “Da-a-a-d! You’ve been watching ancient movies again. Duds! That slang is so lame!”
“It’s still used!” Lizzie, the middle kid. “I saw it in the newspaper yesterday, in a fashion column. ‘Designer duds’.”
“The writer was just using American slang for effect.”
I interrupted. “It’s a perfectly good Scottish dialect word that got transplanted to other countries like America. Your father wasn’t using slang. Well, not for him anyway.” (Christopher grew up in Inverness. It was his family’s holiday cottage in Strathnairn that I’d been using.)
“So when did it get over here?” asked Elin, the word-person youngest. “Did American soldiers bring it back after the war?”
“It’s in books and movies from before that.” Bethany, the engineering student, a stickler for precision. “Maybe after World War One?”
“No, no,” I protested. “It was in common usage centuries before that.” Christopher began to whistle. After a bar or two, we all recognized the tune of “The Sherramuir Fight” and joined in until we found ourselves singing the lines “to hear the thuds, And see the cluds O’ clans frae woods in tartan duds…” The impromptu singsong broke up in laughter.
“So in the late eighteenth century, Burns put the word into the mouth of a Lowland farmer in 1715,” I summed up, “but the word was recorded in use as early as the fifteenth century.”
Elin, intrigued: “But where did the word come from?”
My sleep-starved brain struggled. “Middle English dudde, which meant a cloak but one usually consisting of a piece of rough cloth, not a rich person’s velvet or fur. The Scots also say ‘duddies’ to mean a whole outfit, but it shortened down to ‘duds’ and moved south into England in that form. Some linguists say it’s originally from Old Norse duthi, swaddling cloth.”
“So if it meant clothes made from poor rough cloth, is duds the plural of dud?”
Bethany got fussy again. “Duds is always a noun. Dud is a noun or an adjective, but you wouldn’t say ‘dud’ to mean just one piece of clothing, would you?”
“You would if it was shoddily made,” Lizzie giggled. Bethany shot back, “Then you’d be using dud as an adjective, not the singular of duds as clothing.”
I interrupted again. “Both words have the same origin, Elin. They just took different paths over the centuries. Dud came to mean anything shoddy or useless, while duds eventually meant any outfit of more than one piece of clothing, from any cloth, not just rough peasant stuff. And before you object to imprecise slang, Beth, I meant stuff as in fabric, not the vague generalization it’s become.” (My brain cells were starting to pull together as a team again.)
“It sounds clumsy, doesn’t it?” Carrie, a musician, joined in. “Dud especially. Nothing bright or attractive about it. It’s short and heavy, like a blunt instrument.” She tried the word over a few times. “It even feels heavy and dull in the mouth, like saying ‘Duh?’ when you’ve got a cold and can’t think.”
Lizzie, the visual one like her photographer father, said, “If you print it, it looks like what it means. Print or type dub or bud and they’re symmetrical, but dud – you see a sloppy error. One of the end letters is facing the wrong way, like a chair shoved carelessly out of place at a table.”
She grinned at her older sister. “I promise your wedding duds won’t be duds.” The newly-engaged Bethany refused to wear any wedding dress that didn’t have long sleeves and a high neck, didn’t trust fashion to swing her way in the two years until her wedding, and had appointed her fashionista sister to design a gown according to her strict specifications.
“As long as you do the same with the bridesmaids’ dress for the two of you. Nothing bizarre,” Beth sniffed.
Elin giggled. “Oh, no. She’s going to make us a pip of a dress.”
Everybody cracked up. I let my eyes drift shut. I’d loved the peace of the snow-blanketed Highlands, but I was glad to be back with my family again. Not a dud among them.