No end in sight for this peedie quest

I think it’s time for me to write something about dialect again – the occasion being that I’m starting up my evening class in Orkney dialect again from the middle of February. Orkney dialect is so fascinating to me because it allows me to get a pleasant rush of “Aha!”-feeling when I suddenly understand some connection to Middle Scots or Old Norse or other languages that I am familiar with.

Sometimes the dialect sends me out on a quest for an answer, and I can’t be satisfied before I find out. These quests sometimes take years to solve.

One such quest that I’m on at the moment, and can’t seem to get to the bottom of, is the word “peedie”. It’s the first Orkney dialect word that we incomers learn (by the way: may I call myself a “ferrylouper” when I’m not from the UK, or does it only apply to British people? I did arrive on the St Sunniva, but had flown in to Aberdeen ...). Once, a journalist from south phoned me up and asked: “Is it true that people on Orkney use slang words like peedie instead of little?” I explained that it is not slang, it is dialect. People don’t say it for effect; it’s just the normal word. Slang is a set of informal, colloquial words and phrases that are used within particular social groups, and are regarded as a counter-language, used in opposition to mainstream language. “Peedie”, in Orkney, is part of the mainstream language and part of a geographically determined dialect.

That said, we are very much aware that it distinguishes us as a group. You may not think about it when you are in Orkney, but let’s say you went on holiday to Australia and suddenly heard the word “peedie” there. It would make you jump, wouldn’t it, and give you a jolt of homesickness, perhaps. And if someone asked you what the Orkney dialect is like, perhaps you would tell them that we say “peedie” instead of “little”. It is one of those high-awareness characteristics, unlike other things that incomers may notice, but Orcadians never think about themselves, such as saying “shoe-lacers” instead of “shoe-laces”.

But back to “peedie”. Where does that word come from? This is still a mystery to me, but I can share what I have discovered so far.

The first place to look is obviously Hugh Marwick’s dictionary The Orkney Norn. It says: “peedie: adj, small; this is fairly general, but not so often used as the variant peerie”. Indeed I have been told by older speakers of Orkney dialect that “peerie” used to be more common.  So, what does Marwick’s dictionary have to say about “peerie”, then? It says: “This is used everywhere in Orkney and always – unless one be trying to speak ‘proper’. Also in Shetland and some parts of Lowland Scotland.” It doesn’t say which parts of Lowland Scotland he has in mind, but the Dictionary of the Scots Language ( says that it is “now current only in Shetland and Orkney”.

The etymological origins for “peerie” seem to be a Scandinavian word referring to either something “small, thin”, or “ailing” or “a small fish”. Hugh Marwick writes that in Norwegian, pir “is used of a small object, a tiny creature, and piren, adjective, is used for weakly, ailing, thin (of growth) delicate (not robust)”. Personally, I have only encountered the word “pir” meaning a young fish or more specifically a young mackerel.  However, the Norwegian Nynorsk dictionary has the expression “pirande liten” meaning “tiny-little” and the verb “pire”: trickle as in a thin trickle of water or a plant growing up thin and pointy. This last meaning of the word, the dictionary connects with the word “spire”, which means to germinate. Hugh Marwick also notes “pidre-liten” and “pirande-liten” (no doubt two pronunciations of the same word) in the sense of “very small”.

Amazingly, the Oxford English Dictionary (online) also has an entry for “peerie”. According to it, “peedie”  is “the unattested Norn reflex of the early Scandinavian word represented by Swedish pirig, Swedish regional pirug poor, meagre, thin (compare also Faroese pírin stingy, niggardly, Norwegian (Nynorsk) piren niggardly, scrawny, slight, thin)”.  The Swedish dictionary Svenska Akademiens Ordbok also has the noun “pyre” as a small and weak person, or little child, or changeling, or a baby animal. Reading on in the Oxford English Dictionary, it goes on to talk about small fish and young mackerel, and tells us that also West Frisian, Middle Dutch and Middle Low German all have words cognate with “pir” in the sense of a “worm”.

Now, this is where my scepticism kicks in. There is a scientific principle which says that simple explanations are preferable to complicated explanations if they have the same explanatory power. Why choose a complicated theory when a simple one will explain the same thing? So in this case: Why go via worms and young fish and thin, stringy, pointy plants and small and ailing people? What the Orkney word “peedie” or “peerie” means is neither of these things, but simply “small”. No undertones of “ailing” or “weak” or “worm” or “plant” or “fish”. So if there were a word cognate to “peedie” or “peerie” simply meaning “small”, and nothing else, I would prefer it.

Before I could start looking for that, I had to ask myself: Is “peedie” and “peerie” really the same word, or are they two different words? I don’t have any proof, but my intuition tells me that they are the same word, because phonetically a “d” is very close to an “r” when the “r” is short and pronounced as a “tap”. So I gave myself permission to look for words with a “d” or “t” in its root, as well as the “r” words.

And my eyes fell on the French word “petit”. It simply means “little”. I don’t mean to say that the Orkney word comes from French directly, but that there may be some common ancestor. From what I have been able to find out, the etymology of “petit” is somewhat debated. There is a Medieval Latin word “pitinnus”, meaning “small”, which could be the root of “petit”. “Petit” doesn’t seem to have any root in Classical Latin, but since Medieval Latin absorbed words from the vernacular languages around it, the word could of course have entered from one of these. This has led some to connect it with a Celtic root pett- (Proto-Celtic “*kʷezdi-“), meaning a part, piece or bit, and can be seen in many Scottish place-names, such as Pitlochry, containing “pet” or “pit” in the sense of “portion of land”. However, the connection with “petit” is debated. The word “piece” is related to the Celtic word, though: The Oxford English Dictionary says that “piece” is cognate with Welsh peth” in the sense of a “thing, affair, matter” and Old Irish “cuit”, meaning a portion or share, and that “the suggestion is that the underlying [Medieval] Latin word may have been borrowed from an unattested Gaulish cognate of these [Celtic, Welsh and Old Irish ] words” and entered into English via Anglo-Norman. (I have seen this Gaulish word reconstructed as “pettia”). In English, we also know it in the form “petty”.  However, this explanation is starting to look just as complicated as the last one, so I am not sure if I have advanced my case.

However, there is another alternative. If you still want a Scandinavian root for “peedie”, these languages also offer an alternative to the fish-worm-plant-small-ailing theory. In Norwegian, when something is very, very small, you can say that it is “bitte-liten” or in some dialects “pitte-liten”. In Swedish, the cognate word is “pytte-liten”, while the noun “pytt” or “pytte” is a small boy or a small grown person. I have unfortunately not succeeded in finding an etymology for these yet. The Norwegian Nynorsk dictionary wants to connect “bitte-liten” with the word “bete”, Old Norse “biti”, which is the same as English “bit” – presumably connected with the word “bite”: a “bit” is what you get after performing the act of “biting”. However, I feel that this explanation doesn’t take the “p” seriously, and since we also find the forms starting with a “p” in Swedish, the “p” must not be dismissed as simply a variant of “b”. I think this line of enquiry may have potential, although I know that the form with “r” – “peerie” – is said by reliable Orcadians to be older than the form with “d”. I wonder if “pitte-liten” could also somehow be related to the Medieval Latin “pitinnus” and to our own “peedie”? The quest goes on.