I was reading Patrick Wright’s LRB review of Hamish Henderson: A Biography, by Timothy Neat (a two-volume biography of a modern poet! ah, Scotland!) when I was struck by this sentence: “He became a passionate song hunter whose research tools included a Rudge 500cc motorbike, a tent, innumerable bottles and a habit of testing the ‘human will’ of his compatriots by ‘doing a Henderson’: a method of sponging that prompted one victim into reviving an obsolete Scots word – ‘to sorn’ was ‘to come for supper and lodge for a month’.” What an excellent word, thought I, and consulted the Dictionary of the Scots Language, where I found more:

I. v. 1. intr. To exact free board and lodging by force or threats, to act as a masterful beggar, to beg importunately (Sc. 1808 Jam.). Now hist. Freq. in phr. to thig and sorn, id. See Thig, v., 4. (1). Vbl.n. sorning, the act or process of exacting free lodging …. Deriv. sor(o)ner, a masterful beggar, a begging vagrant ….
   *Bnff. 1700 S.C. Misc. (1846) III. 178:
   The Sheriff Deput finds the libell relevant, as declairing them to be holdin, known, and reput to be Egyptians, soroners and vagabonds.
   *Lnk. 1718 Minutes J.P.s (S.H.S.) 226:
   Robert Scot and John Ker, passing under the name of tinkers was found sorning in the high country.
   *Arg. 1721 Stent Bk. Islay (1890) 274:
   The frequent Thigging and Sorning of many people both from the Main land Countrey and also the Inhabitants of this Isle.
   *Sc. c.1750 T. Somerville Life (1861) 369:
   “Sorners”, who, though the name survives, have no modern representatives — persons destitute of a fixed home, and possessing slender means of subsistence, who used to lodge by turns, and for many days, or even weeks, at a time, at the houses of their acquaintances, and were treated with as much attention and generosity as if they had been capable of making a return in kind.
    . . .
   2. tr. with (up)on or absol.: to scrounge or wheedle free quarters (from), to sponge, abuse or trespass on one’s hospitality, to get a meal out of someone, to act the parasite, to batten on …. Derivs. sorner, a sponger, a self-invited guest, a parasite (Ib.), jocularly: a young scamp, rascal, ¶sornee, one who is looked to for hospitality, sorning, wheedling, sponging.
    *Sc. 1725 Ramsay Gentle Shep. iii. iv.:
   He gangs about sornan frae place to place.
   *Mry. 1740 Elchies Letters (MacWilliam) 123:
   Giving both Mrs Grant and you trouble enough without going to sorn upon you.
   *Sc. 1797 Scott Letters (Cent. Ed.) I. 86:
   As from being a sorner I am becoming a sornee, it is proper to acquaint you that my dwelling is No. 50 Georges Street.
    . . .
   *Bwk. 1862 J. G. Smith Poems 83:
   There were crumpy farles o’ cake an’ souple scones to spare For a’ the gaberlunzies, wha often sornit there.
   . . .
   *Kcb. 1911 G. M. Gordon Auld Clay Biggin’ 90:

   Keepin’ open hoose, aye fillin’ it wi’ quality folk wha sorned upo’ him.
   *Sc. 1947 Scots Review (May) 25:
   The temptation to sorn on America is almost too strong to be resisted.
   3. To scrounge (food), to forage. to feed on (Cai., Ags. 1971).
   *Ayr. 1824 A. Crawford Tales of My Grandmother 275:
[He] brak’ into the kail-yard, an’ sorned there for the maist feck o’ twa hours, to the utter destruction o’ the fruit on my three airn-gray groset busses.
   *Sc. 1879 P. H. Waddell Isaiah lxi. 6:
   Ye sal sorn on the walth o’ the hethen.
   *Ayr. 1913 J. Service Memorables 24:
   They had either to tether the beasts or let them sorn for their meat.
    . . .
   [O.Sc. sorryn, night’s lodging, 1365, sorn, = 1., c.1460, = 2., 1575, sorner, 1449, an adaptation of the now only hist. sorren, the service of hospitality required of vassals towards their superiors in Ireland and Scotland, Ir. †sorthan, free quarters, living at free expense.]

I like the word itself a lot, and I like the phrase “to thig and sorn” even more. And once again I am struck with what a great language Scots is for translating; “Ye sal sorn on the walth o’ the hethen” is so much more expressive than “ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles.”


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    Can there possibly be more than a coincidental resemblance to schnorrer?

  2. That’s what we’d call a “bludger” but without the connotations of sponging with menace.

  3. That’s the best word I’ve learned since “pococurante.” Actually, it’s better. It’s just nice to have a “since” — like Maxwell Smart: That’s the second biggest cannon I’ve ever seen.

  4. In John Brunner’s 1968 science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar (Wikipedia calls it “dystopian”, but it’s not at all), there is a phenomenon called the shiggy circuit (shiggy ‘chick, bird’): “the fact that the world’s big cities are alive with women who’ve never had a permanent home, but live out of a bag and sleep a night, a week, half a year wherever there’s a man with an apartment to share.”

  5. It sounds more fallopian than dystopian. Do they walk around with signs: “Down on my luck. Will trade head for bed.” ?

  6. No, it’s normal, like living together unmarried today. No need for signs.

  7. Do they walk around with signs: “Down on my luck. Will trade head for bed.” ?
    Sort of. Almost. C’mon, Stu, you’ve been in the boue.

  8. Never mind. What John said.

  9. Trond Engen says

    I missed the last paragraph of the extract, so I first went on a binge searching for a Scandinavian cognate. Finally giving up I found sorthyn in the DSL after having the idea that it might be a local development from journey or sojourn.
    I still like the latter origin, even with a Celtic detour. Does the Irish/Scottish Gaelic word have an etymology? It’s probably more likely, though, that it’s an extension of “inspect” derived from “see, know” like the Norse counterpart institution of veitsla and Eng. ‘visit’ from Lat. visitare.

  10. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    I suspect the ” thig” of being Gaelic, since it sounds exactly like an Anglicisation (or Scotsification) of “tigh”.

  11. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    I found “sorthan” in Ó Dónaill’s Gaeilge-Béarla as a somewhat obsolete literary word meaning maintenance, maintenance tax, prosperity. The second meaning made me think of livery and maintenance. Further poking around brought me to the sixteenth century Desmond Survey –
    and footnote 2 under Definition of Services (the quote from Carew is particularly good).
    ” sorthan, soirthean, ‘maintenance’, ‘free quarterage’. The general meaning would appear to be that of a tax or rent in victuals, etc.. extracted from vassals or inferiors.
    Two other defintions of the term may be given here. Carew himself described it as ‘a kind of allowance over and besides the Bonnaghy, which the Galioglas expect [?] upon the poor people by way of spending-money, viz. 2s 8d . for a day and night; to be divided between three spears, for their meat, drink and lodgings’.
    Where it occurs in a list of exactions by the earl of Desmond, it is given as meaning ‘a charge set upon the freeholders’ lands for a number of galloglasses for certain days in a quarter.’ A comparison with the survey definition suggests that the term had no one specific meaning.”

  12. Trond Engen says

    To me, thig looked so much like a cognate (or a loan) of Da./No. tigge “beg”, ON þiggja “recieve”, that I didn’t bother to look it up. Of course, these may well be related to the Gaelec word in some way or other.

  13. “Ye sal sorn on the walth o’ the hethen” is so much more expressive than “ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles.”
    One reason hethen is better is that the word Gentiles always gives me a mental image of genitals.

  14. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    Yes, I think I was making the wrong assumption about “thig”.
    “Sorthan” has an entry in the eDIL dictionary of old/ middle Irish – too fiddly to copy here but it should be findable. Anyhow it seems the word appears several Middle and Old Irish texts e.g. “Buchet co mbīd sorthan sluaig” (Buchet who could maintain an army) from Esnada Tige Buchet.

  15. If Brunner (pbuh) were writing the story today, given the social changes in who has (quasi-)permanent residences and who doesn’t, he’d probably be talking of the codder circuit. As in this ad from the book:
    Do your slax sufficiently convey your natural power — at a glance?
    If you’re wearing MasQ-Lines, the answer’s yes.
    Tired of half measures, we at MasQ-Line Corp. have put the codpiece back where it belongs,
    to say to the shiggies not kidder but codder.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Can there possibly be more than a coincidental resemblance to schnorrer?

    I wonder. But the metathesis is a bit much.

    ON þiggja “recieve”

    Any chance that’s related to German gedeihen “prosper” and angedeihen lassen “give” (said especially of care)?

  17. It’s interesting that Britain has ponce and Australia has bludge, but in modern American slang pimp and mack are largely complimentary.
    Looking up mooch in the OED, I learned that “mooch” has the regional meaning “to play truant in order to pick blackberries.” And that led to the verbs mitching and meeching, which are at least euphonious.
    Incidentally, the OED has yet to add “cheeba-hawk”

  18. Pimp is only complimentary among people who admire pimps, though one of the derived senses is positive.

  19. I think it has more to do with age or social group than actual feelings about pimps.

  20. rootlesscosmo says

    @David Marjanović:
    Yeah, it’s a pretty far fetch. What struck me was the suggestion that the sorner, rather than petitioning humbly for alms, behaves as though free lodging and board etc. were his by entitlement, which is one of the schnorrer characteristics too.

  21. Thig and Gaelic:
    The etymological work closest to hand derives thig from PG theghjan, giving AS thicgan (whence presumably Scots thig) as well as OHG dicken/diggen and ON thiggja.
    “By some connected to OIr ateoch ‘I ask’ from -tek-” it adds — there’s a certain similarity to Gaelic tigh, but I know too little to say if it’s just on the surface.

  22. But does English have an equivalent for the Chinese expression 吃软饭 (‘to eat soft rice’), which refers to moochers who live off their girlfriends?

  23. The word applies rather well to Harold Skimpole in Dickens’ “Bleak House.”

  24. 吃软饭?
    Lounge lizard. Perhaps not perfect, but it’s nevertheless very expressive, and I bet you could identify one from 20 yds.

  25. “To Prestongrange I could, of course, say nothing; for I had already been a long while sorning on his house and table.” —R.L.S., Catriona (the sequel to Kidnapped).

  26. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I’ll just mention that while looking up something about Hans Christian Andersen that WordPress never accepted — I think the server had a cold that day — I learned that at one point he was sorning at the house of Charles Dickens for a few months until they could ship him back to Denmark.

    Frisk fisk og liggende gæster holder kun tre dage.

    — Clearly not H.C.Andersen

  27. SushiBubble says

    In the song, Kids!, by Pixey (written by Elizabeth Hillesdon), sorn is used as an adjective, “I wish I was sorn.”
    Has this word now expanded colloquially? Can we be sorn in this century?

  28. PlasticPaddy says

    wish I was torn, wish I was sorn,
    wish that I had never been born

    Is “sorn” to be understood as “sawed (in pieces)” to compliment “torn (in pieces)”?

  29. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I googled sorn and got the wonderful question ‘How do I unSORN my car?’

    But sadly this has to do with a Statutory Off Road Notification, rather than cars living in other people’s garages.

  30. John Cowan says

    So it would seem that thiggin is begging for food or other material goods, whereas sornin is begging for shelter.

  31. As is confirmed by the DSL’s pre-1700 article s.v. thig, giving the etymology as “ME þigge (c1175), thigg (a1300), thigge (c1300), thyg (c1450), OE þicg(e)an, ON þiggja. Also in the later dial.” The post-1700 article adds nothing of interest except the variants theg and tig(g) and the fact that the word was still current in the 1970s when the modern Scots part of the dictionary was written.

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