Pricklouse ‘tailor.’ From the OED:

pricklouse (‘prIklaUs). Now dial. Also [19th century] prick-the(-a)-louse. A derisive name for a tailor.

1500-20 Dunbar Poems xxvii. 5 Betuix a tel3our and ane sowtar, A pricklouss and ane hobbell clowttar [telyour ‘tailor’; souter ‘shoemaker, cobbler’; hobble ‘cobble, mend (shoes) roughly’; clooter ‘patcher, cobbler’]. 1668 R. L’Estrange The Visions of Don Francisco Quevedo Villegas (1708) 151 The poor Prick-Lice were damn’dly startled at that, for fear they should not get in. 1709 O. Dykes Eng. Proverbs with Moral Reflexions (ed. 2) 117 What an ignorant Presumption..for an impudent Prick-lowse to set up for a Lawyer, or a Statesman. A. 1796 Burns Answ. to Tailor ii, Gae mind your seam, ye prick-the-louse, An’ jag-the-flae. [jag ‘prick, pierce’ (hence the nickname “the Jags” for Partick Thistle, a Glasgow football team familiar to fans of the wonderful Jack Laidlaw detective novels of William McIlvanney); flae ‘flea’ (ie, “jag-the-flae” is modeled on the traditional “prick-(the-)louse”)]

Since the first quotation is from William Dunbar, let me here put in a plug for him as one of the great early modern poets; he wrote in Scots rather than southron English, but it’s worth making the effort for such a brilliant poem as Lament for the Makers (“maker” was the traditional Scots term for ‘poet’), with its refrain “Timor mortis conturbat me” (‘The fear of death disturbs me’). And from this brief biography we learn that he

has the curious distinction of having been responsible for the first printed use of the word “fuck” (1508), thus establishing a long and noble tradition of which some critics of Kelman or Welsh appear to be quite unaware….

“The Flyting” is a verse-quarrel with the poet Walter Kennedy, and contains such choice insults as “wan fukkit funling” and “cuntbitten crawdon”. Perhaps it was language such as this which had something to do with Scotland becoming the first country to try and make swearing illegal (1551). We might add as a parenthesis that the later English puritans, undeterred by the complete failure of the Scottish law, followed suit by making swearing at one’s parents a capital offence (1649). Much later, Mussolini put notices up saying “For Italy’s honour, do not swear”, but look where it got him. Before leaving this interesting topic, it should be added that the powerful word which Dunbar put into print in 1508 was not decriminalised until 1960, only appearing in dictionaries after 1965, but by 1982 it was thought necessary to declare “fuck” unparliamentary language. Nevertheless, a hundred years earlier it had already showed up unexpectedly in “The Times” of all places, probably due to a mischievous compositor, in a Parliamentary report which stated: “The Speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of fucking.”


  1. I like the idea of swearing at your prick-louse tailor! These days we get all misty-eyed and nostalgic at the very idea of even having a tailor….

    No, no quarrels about bargain books with Nina. (I loved “She wants to paint the living room yellow. I have not the words.”) After we broke up she even translated my Dutch page, and is still so sweet, I rather wonder why we didn’t marry….

  2. Hand up, who can name the fantasy published in 1926 which quotes from the above-mentioned Lament?

  3. I’m guessing it’s something by James Branch Cabell, but don’t keep us in suspense… what was it?

  4. William Dunbar! Sorry, just a tiny squeak of happiness.

  5. Does anyone know where i can get a copy of Dunbar’s “Ane Pleasant Satyre of Thrie Estaits”?

  6. Well, it’s part of the LETRS database, accessible here — if you can get access (through a library?). But it’s not by Dunbar, it’s by David Lindsay, or Lyndesay. If you want an actual copy of the book, you’re probably out of luck.

  7. Oops, sorry about the two years of suspense: E.R.Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros puts a number of verses from the ~16th c. into the mouths of his warring Mercurians, and identifies them more properly in an appendix.

  8. Whew. I can finally release that breath.

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