SCOTS WORD OF THE WEEK
WORDS can change their meaning. They can become specialised, eg the English word “fowl” used to mean any kind of bird, not just those that live in barnyards, while other forms can develop negative connotations, as “silly”, which used to mean “blessed, holy”. Braw “fine, splendid”, is one such word.
Braw derives from brave, itself a loanword into English and Scots from French, and ultimately from Latin barbarus “barbarous”. In English, its primary meaning is “courageous” – already a long way from “barbarous”! – but in the 16th and 17th centuries it seems also to have meant “fine” or “splendid”.
In English this secondary meaning has largely disappeared. In Scots, however, as indicated in the Dictionary of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk), it is now the principal meaning of the word, with many citations ranging from the 16th century to the present. The most recent is from the Edinburgh Evening News in 2004, referring to a “braw trophy” for a sporting occasion.
Robert Burns seems to have liked the word, using it in Tam Lin and The Cottar’s Saturday Night, and twice in the song Galla Water. Readers will know of the annual Galashiels festival known as the Braw Lads’ Gathering, making events in the town’s history, including the defeat of an English raiding party in 1337. However, the festival dates from 1930, and Burns’s song seems to have been the source of its title: a fascinating “invention” of cultural tradition.