Daily Archives: March 15, 2015


I’ve turned again to Robert Macfarlane’s article on landscape words. Here is one that is worth a peer, a word that truly purrs:

Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”.

A cat’s paw. A purring cat’s paw, to be sure. It’s not enough to rrip the surface; it’s just as much as may be exhaled after the /p/ in /pɪr/ or /pʌr/. How much is that? Take a saucer of water – or milk if you wish; you can give it to your cat after – and hold it up to your chin. Then say pirr. It will make a little wave just after the puff on the /p/ – not as much as if a cat’s paw had swatted it, unless it’s the paw of a cat you had as a child and that still follows you around in spirit, purring in your mind, though long out of its body. Just the ripples of tiny feet, which will quickly dis-a-pirr. I am put in mind of e.e. cummings’s “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond,” which concludes,

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

And as rain has small hands, so a pirr has small feet. Paws that refresh. And pirr the written word has the little paw waves of the rr, perhaps caused by the little paw of the p.

Is pirr in the dictionary? It is, if you have a really good one. It seems that our word pirr – which can also mean ‘a state of agitation or excitement’ – comes from pirrie, which can mean the same thing or can mean ‘a squall, a sudden blast of wind, a storm’. Either way, its origin seems to be imitative. There is also a verb pirr, which means ‘flow swiftly’ or ‘blow gently’. Again there is an opposition of sense. Perhaps to unwind these turns we need a pirr review.

There is another word pirr, by the way: it is an onomatopoeia for the cry of the tern, and is also used to name the tern itself. If the word has a tern in its sense, then it’s no wonder it has turns in sense.