Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some words are simply outwith some people's understanding. A rant in defence of the word 'outwith'.

Related post

If you'd prefer to read a more concise post about outwith, you can find a few examples and various links at another (much shorter) post I wrote on this subject more recently: Q and A - Is outwith a word
I was once explaining the Edinburgh Festival to some English friends. I told them about the ‘Official festival’; this is how people in Edinburgh refer to the Edinburgh International Festival. For most people in Edinburgh, the Festival is really the Fringe, cheaper (although less so nowadays) and less High Culture. Anyway, I went on to say that there was also the Fringe Festival, the Book Festival, a film festival and God knows what other festival, but that they were all outwith the main (official) festival. And they looked at me in a strange way. ‘You mean they’re not part of the main festival?’. Yes, I said, rather puzzled, for these were educated people and I had no idea that there was anything particularly special about outwith. So I looked in my trusty Chambers, and it was only then that I discovered that outwith was a Scottish word.

Someone called, I think, Damien (and who I think might even be Scottish, shame on him!) has the gall to write:

‘There I was, thinking yesterday about the pseudo-word outwith ... it would seem that no - it's not a proper word.

Pseudo-word!?!  Not a proper word?!? What an ignoramus! In the resulting comments someone makes the good point that:

"Outwith" is a term which is understood in Scots law and is the exact equivalent of the German "außerhalb" and the French "hors de",  

but then spoils it by saying:
‘We Scots have to be bilingual, and accept that normal use in some Scots dialects would give "I done" or " I seen", or where I live "I jamp". It's just a matter of knowing when we're speaking to family and when to strangers.’

For those other examples he gives are dialect,and the thing is that outwith is not really a dialect word. It’s use in Scotland is mainly among ‘educated’ people who wouldn’t otherwise dream of using dialect. You come across it quite often in the quality press, and on television current affairs programmes. It is part of what Wikipedia refers to as Standard Scottish English, “the characteristic speech of the professional class [in Scotland] and the accepted norm in schools” (J. Derrick McLure, Cambridge history of the English language).

The Independent quotes the BBC journalist and presenter John Humphrys as saying: ’When did we start with this one and what does it mean?’. Well it’s been around for a long time, since the 13th century, according to Chambers.

Humphrys, the bane of many a politician, co-presents the early morning ‘Today’ programme. You can find a BBC podcast of the best bits here. He can get quite worked up about the English language and is seen as a bit of a traditionalist, especially in his book, Lost for words. But in the Independent article he is quite sensible (apart from within), and even rather funny.

To be fair to Humphrys, I've discovered that he has since realised that outwith is indeed a real word, and has apologised for criticising it.

Many dictionaries don’t define outwith at all. Cambridge Advanced Learners for example.  Although Oxford Advanced does. American dictionaries, at least on the Internet, seem to do rather better.

The following dictionaries get an honourary mention: Oxford Concise, Free Dictionary, Dictionary.com,  Wiktionary, and MSN Encarta, which all define it as meaning outside or beyond.

Mirriam-Webster manages - outside. But that’s better than Cambridge Advanced, Macmillans and Longmans, British dictionaries all, which do not contain the word and should know better. So black marks for them.

Interesting one here  - Wordnik.com quoting the Century Dictionary -         
  1. Without; on the outward side; outwardly; externally.
  2. Without; outside of.
In this meaning without means outside. As schoolkids we used to have great fun with the name of a particular church in Rome - St.Paul-Without-the-Walls. Yes it has walls, but it was originally outside Rome’s city walls.

And the Urban Dictionary - strange definition but perfect use in the example sentence.
Shortened version of 'Outside of' which originated in Scotland as 'Ootwith'. Being a principle word of self-referential encoding it doesn't appear in any 'English' dictionary as it would no longer be 'Outwith' it anymore.
I'm sorry Madam, programming a neuromate robot to alter the 5HT3 update in the Dorsel Horn of the Hippocampus is outwith my knowledge as a plumber.

But I think top of the class has to be the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, whose definition is - outside of something; not within something - and gives the examples:
He had lived outwith Scotland for five years.
outwith normal office hours

And why do I think this is best? Because it is the only dictionary to point out the negative quality of the word. The stress is on not within (or not part of, as in my Festival example), rather than outside. I’m sure I remember somewhere seeing Humphrys as saying something like ‘Don’t the Scots know the word outside?’, but I can’t for the life of me find the original quote. There is a subtle difference in nuance between not within and outside. Outwith conveys a precise meaning that no other single word does, so deserves its rightful place in the English language. QED.

Related post

You can find a few examples and various links at another (much shorter) post I wrote on this subject more recently: Q and A - Is outwith a word


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