Anne Nelson has a nice piece in the Dec. 4 TLS called How I became a guinea pig: Joining a trial for a Covid-19 vaccine in New York; I recommended it to my wife, and when she got to this passage she called me over:

I’d been following the developments of the vaccine with interest, but I wasn’t particularly looking to participate. The opportunity presented itself in September on my Facebook feed. I filled out the application – why not? – and asked around for advice. My daughter said I was crazy, but she tends to worry. I have three friends who are emergency physicians and who have worked with Covid-19 patients. Dr California said I shouldn’t go near a trial vaccine – look at polio. Dr New York said she knew the vaccine people at Mount Sinai and trusted them as first-rate. Dr Saskatchewan said he wished he could participate in the trial because his own province was spiking.

By the time I’d filtered through all the advice and responded affirmatively, the places had been filled. Given my havering, I was surprised by my disappointment.

“What does ‘havering’ mean?” she asked. I said it was a British word and meant, uh… I realized I didn’t quite know what it meant, and after fumfering for a minute I gave in and looked it up. Turns out the reason I was confused is that it means two different things (OED, entry updated March 2015):

1. intransitive. Chiefly Scottish and English regional (northern). To talk foolishly or inconsequentially; to talk nonsense; to blather, ramble; to chatter, gossip. Frequently with on, about.
1776 Weekly Mag. 25 Jan. 145 Troth, Branky, man, I hinna faul’t my een Since here I left you havrin’ late the streen.
1816 W. Scott Antiquary III. xv. 332 He just havered on about it to make the mair o’ Sir Arthur.
1907 N. Munro Bud xxvii. 259 ‘The sweetest in the world!’ cried Auntie Bell. ‘I wonder to hear you haivering.’
1943 Scots Mag. May 129 Yin o’ Scotland’s great race o’ engineers that the writers write aboot an’ the orators haver aboot.
1988 C. Reid & C. Reid I’m gonna be (500 Miles) (song) in Proclaimers Sunshine on Leith (record sleeve notes) And if I haver, yeah I know I’m gonna be I’m gonna be the man who’s havering to you.
2009 I. Welsh Reheated Cabbage 260 Lawson eyed and pawed at her in lewd obscenity as he havered on. It was as well she probably couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

2. intransitive. Chiefly British (originally Scottish). To behave indecisively or hesitantly; to vacillate between opinions or courses of action; to waver, dither.
1866 W. Gregor Dial. Banffshire (Philol. Soc.) 73 Ye needna be haiverin’ that wye aboot gain’ haim..wee the lassie. A ken ye like ‘ir.
1919 M. Diver Strong Hours iii. 83 You’ve been havering long enough; and I gather that my proposal—broadly speaking—is not distasteful to you?
1955 J. Bayley In Another Country 75 It was a classic moment for polite havering, but the sensible girl did not haver: he was holding the front door open and she climbed in without more ado.
2013 Express (Nexis) 1 Mar. 15 Over 20 years successive governments havered and dithered over nuclear reactor replacement.

(It’s “Of uncertain origin. Perhaps an imitative or expressive formation.”) Clearly Nelson is using it in the second sense, which apparently is filtering over here like so many UK terms. I’m sure my readers from across the pond know all about this, but I present it as a public service to my fellow confused Yanks.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Haver is part of my active vocabulary; my impression is that most English (as opposed to Scots) aren’t familiar with it, but such impressions often turn out to be wrong. (If it’s been adopted in the second sense alone, I suspect that it’s something to do with contamination from hover.)

    The proper word for the second sense is (of course) swither.

  2. It’s in the Proclaimers’ “500 Miles” (“and if I haver up, yeah I know I’m gonna be / I’m gonna be the man who’s havering to you”). That’s the first place I heard it. Benefits of a classical education.

  3. And if you’ll check the OED citations above, you’ll find it under 1988 (record sleeve notes). The OED has gotten hip!

  4. Raised in England — I only know it in the second sense, and wasn’t aware it was Scottish word.

  5. >the Proclaimers “500 Miles”

    Sunshine on Leith is in my pickup’s CD player at the moment after the kids watched Shrek, sparking a Proclaimers retrospective. I’m hoping the Proclaimers are the gateway drug that ultimately gets them hooked on the Pogues.

  6. Ah, the Pogues, God bless them! I have seen Shane MacGowan walk the streets of Manhattan (I think shortly before a gig I was at, but my memories of the ’80s are unreliable), and I was sad when he left the band. Good times.

  7. I don’t remember hearing or seeing the word…. I was trying to think if it might have something to do with “haversack” before I read your definition.

  8. John Emerson says

    My son is in a Pogues pickup cover band here in Portland that plays twice a year (St Patrick’s day and Xmas). He’s met one of them and found him to be interesting and pleasant to be with, no superstar attitude. In his set they were at the top of a continuum, with the Eagles at the bottom.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    I regret to advise you all that 2020 is shaping up to be an Annus Horribilis even for Pogues-related news:


  10. If you think I’m going to click on that video, you are much mistaken.

  11. However, the Nevis Living Room Ensemble doing “500 Miles” is a big ol’ cute “awww” (and was sponsored by the Proclaimers). The song is now as Scottish as Auld Lang Syne (which the NLRE also performed).

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I have not myself clicked through from the news story to the actual performance, after reading enough different descriptions of it.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Havers caused some vague looming in the abyss of my memory, which I eventually recognised as the more-or-less synonymous clavers; what was looming exactly was this footnote from Old Mortality:

    John Grahame of Claverhouse. This remarkable person united the seemingly inconsistent qualities of courage and cruelty, a disinterested and devoted loyalty to his prince, with a disregard of the rights of his fellow-subjects. He was the unscrupulous agent of the Scottish Privy Council in executing the merciless severities of the government in Scotland during the reigns of Charles II. and James II.; but he redeemed his character by the zeal with which he asserted the cause of the latter monarch after the Revolution, the military skill with which he supported it at the battle of Killiecrankie, and by his own death in the arms of victory.

    It is said by tradition, that he was very desirous to see, and be introduced to, a certain Lady Elphinstoun, who had reached the advanced age of one hundred years and upwards. The noble matron, being a stanch whig, was rather unwilling to receive Claver’se, (as he was called from his title,) but at length consented. After the usual compliments, the officer observed to the lady, that having lived so much beyond the usual term of humanity, she must in her time have seen many strange changes.

    “Hout na, sir,” said Lady Elphinstoun, “the world is just to end with me as it began. When I was entering life, there was ane Knox deaving us a’ wi’ his clavers, and now I am ganging out, there is ane Claver’se deaving us a’ wi’ his knocks.”

  14. A merciless servant of tyrants was slain at the battle of Killecrankie? Which creative proponent of a republic gave us that wonderful English approximation of a Gaelic name?

  15. This cover of “Fairytale of New York” is not worse than Bon Jovi’s, but probably infinitely more annoying to people who aren’t fans of Cologne German and/or Nina Hagen. Which turns out to be a lot of people in my experience. Somehow I think Shane might approve though.


  16. Trond Engen says

    David E.: (If it’s been adopted in the second sense alone, I suspect that it’s something to do with contamination from hover.)

    Or contamination of hover and waver?

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Seems plausible enough.

    I wonder if swithering-haver might be of quite independent origin from blethering-haver in Scotland just as much as in England. The concepts aren’t all that close semantically, after all.

  18. I was vaguely aware of the older meaning, but not the second one. Encountering it here, my immediate reaction was also that we were seeing contamination from waver.

  19. David Marjanović says


    That must be a sack full of oats.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Cologne German

    For the first 20 seconds I understood nothing.

    Nina Hagen

    Beautifully understandable (I suspect her text is mostly in Rhinelandic mesolect), but I’m getting a throatache from that voice.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    I feel like if you can appreciate Shane’s voice you can appreciate Nina’s, so I found that version fine until they switched into English during the cheesy and overlong outro. That I couldn’t follow the prior lyrics (probably at least as much due to the rustiness of my “regular” German as to the added complication of Kölsch) may have helped, of course.

  22. @David Marjanović: Previous discussion of haversack.

  23. Beautifully understandable (I suspect her text is mostly in Rhinelandic mesolect), but I’m getting a throatache from that voice.
    Wolfgang Niedecken sings in Kölsch, but Nina Hagen sings Berlinerisch, as is only to be expected from someone born in East Berlin.

  24. David Marjanović says


    Berlin mesolect. Of course.

  25. For me, “500 Miles” means Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, et al. As Dorian has been a railfan as long as he can remember, I sing him this song as a lullaby/calmative.

    a sack full of oats

    Indeed. The OED says s.v. haver(s) ‘oat(s): “The English word could, on formal grounds, be a cognate of the other Germanic words, but its consistent geographical distribution, especially in early use, suggests a Scandinavian origin.” As for haversack itself, that took a detour through French havresac.

    battle of Kill[i]ecrankie

    blàr Choille Chnagaidh in Scots Gaelic. Note that Dundee’s opponent was a Mackay (/məˈkaɪ/).

  26. Ahem. Hedy West.

  27. suggests a Scandinavian origin

    Cue Skära, skära havre.

  28. The Bonnie Earl of Claverhouse (who combined courage and cruelty with cuteness) was remembered long and unfondly. Old books say that Appalachian mothers used to threaten their obstreperous young with “Stop it, or Clavers will git ye!”

  29. Martha Kitchen says

    I was a grad student at Brown Slavic when Prof Terras retired. Naturally there was a reception and program to mark the event. Quite a few speeches and tributes, followed by a number of students who offered musical presentations in his honor. At least an hour and a half had gone by before this wound up and it was time for the honoree himself to speak. He approached the lectern, gazed benignly at the audience and said “You are too kind.” Then he sat down. It was a perfect moment.

  30. That makes me like him even more.

  31. I looked at the Bon Jovi link and thought, ‘No way.’ Then I got home from work, finished the wine, and thought, ‘Why not?’

    Oh dear. I’m not sure it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard, but it’s not far off.

    BAP and Nina Hagen were better, even with the pointless English bit, and even though I’ve always wanted to like Nina Hagen more than I actually do.

    But there’s been music and Claverhouse, and no one’s brought up https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cIe99z_1qs

    And, to the original post, as a (West Midlands) Englishman, I know both senses of the word, but probably wouldn’t use either, though the ‘be indecisive’ meaning is definitely less alien.

  32. David Marjanović says

    French havresac

    …like… Le Havre?

  33. Trond Engen says

    Ben Tolley: I’ve always wanted to like Nina Hagen more than I actually do


    David M.: Le Havre?

    Le Havre is from the Germanic “haven” word. I can’t explain the n, though.

  34. Trond Engen says

    I was to lazy to go upstairs and find my book of toponymes normands, but it turns out I wasn’t too lazy for French Wikipedia:

    Le nom commun havre, synonyme de port, sorti de l’usage à la fin du xviiie ou au xixe siècle, est conservé dans l’expression havre de paix. Il est généralement considéré comme un emprunt au moyen néerlandais au xiie siècle42. Son origine germanique explique l’« aspiration » du h initial. Cependant, de nouvelles recherches mettent l’accent sur le fait que le terme qui est attesté très tôt (dès le début du xiie siècle) et dans des textes normands sous les formes hable, hafne, havene, havne et haule, rend peu probable une origine néerlandaise. Par contre, une étymologie scandinave est pertinente étant donné l’ancien appellatif norrois höfn (génitif hafnar, vieux danois hafn), désignant un « port de mer naturel, havre » et l’évolution phonétique du terme étrave d’origine scandinave assurée, attesté lui aussi sous des formes analogues comme estable et qui remonte probablement à l’ancien scandinave stafn. Ce mot de vieux norrois se perpétue dans les langues nordiques modernes : islandais höfn, féroïen havn et norvégien / danois havn.

    (Hope I caught all the italics.)

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