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A Gaelic etymology for dyvour 'debtor'.

Dyvour makes its entry into Scots in line 410 of Dunbar's Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, where the last exalts in the death of an unloved spouse:

   Deid is now that dyvour and dollin in erd:
   With him deit all my dule and my drery thoghtis. (1)

With husband buried in earth, farewell sorrow! Dyvour survived into Scots at least into the early twentieth century with its older sense 'debtor, bankrupt'. It is still used to mean 'rogue, good-for-nothing'. Yet its origin has been obscure. Dictionaries in print and on line, noting merely that it appears in Scots and nowhere else, give its etymology as 'obscure'. (2)

But there seems a simple solution here. Dyvour is surely a loan from Gaelic, where daidbir 'poor, indigent; a poor person' figures in early Irish texts as the opposite of saidbir 'rich'. Saibhir [sevir], still standard Irish for 'rich, opulent', is ultimately from the particle so- 'good, superior' + adbar 'cause; matter'. Daidbir, in contrast, has the negative particle do-'bad'. (3)

Modern Irish daibhir 'poor, indigent; a poor person' is not now a common form, though dictionaries still record the phrase chomh daibhir le daol dubh 'as poor as a beetle' (= poor as a church mouse). The standard word today is bocht. In Scotland a similar process occurred long ago, so that Lhuyd's informant from the Inverness area translated 'poor' as bochd. (4) That will explain in part why the etymology of dyvour puzzled the editors of OED and, it seems, all other lexicographers.

So it appears that dyvour 'debtor' in Dunbar and in Modern Scots is from the Gaelic equivalent of Irish daibhir 'poor', a word that goes far back but was in the modern period effectively displaced by bochd. If so, it will be yet another previously unsuspected Gaelic component of Modern Scots. (5)

University of Navarre, Pamplona

(1) The Poems of William Dunbar, ed. James Kinsley, (Oxford 1979), p. 55.

(2) The Concise Scots Dictionary, ed. Mairi Robinson (Aberdeen, 1985), 167.

(3) Rudolph Thumeysen, A Grammar of Old Irish (Dublin, 1946), 219, 231.

(4) J.L. Campbell and D.S. Thomson, Edward Lhuyd in the Scottish Highlands 1699-1700 (Oxford, 1963), 176.

(5) Cf. A.C. Breeze, 'Dunbar's Brylyoun, Carrybald, Cawandaris, Slawsy, Strekouris, and Traikit', Notes and Queries, cclii (2007), 185-9.

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Author:Breeze, Andrew
Publication:Scottish Language
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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