ENGLISCH/727: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (110) - Sassenach (SB)


110. What do the Scottish mean by "Sassenach"

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...I am reading a historical Highland saga from the American author Diana Gabaldon. In the first novel the Scottish male protagonist, a clan man called Jamie uses the word Sassenach as some kind of pet name for the heroin of these books. To be quite honest, I am not sure what to think of it. Either Sassenach means something really bad or something English or both, but it doesn't seem the right word for adressing your beloved, girlfriend or wife, does it?

Sabine Lange (Berlin, Germany)


Dear Ms Lange

Between lovers anything is possible. I heard an elderly woman call her husband a lucky "old bugger", which is not very nice but she said it in such a charming and loving manner that it made me smile. Sometimes it is not what we say but how we say it that matters, especially in the language of love and romance.

Now Sassenach, what does it mean? In fact, its meaning has changed a lot through the times. 1500 years ago, Britain was a mixture of peoples and languages. The most important were the Celts and the Saxons. The Celts were in Britain first and had settled for hundreds of years. Then, the Saxons invaded from what is now Northern Germany, pushing the Celts into the remote, mountainous corners of Britain (Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) and settled mostly in the flatter area known now as England. As you might know, the modern English language has its roots in the Saxon language.

The Celts of Scotland and Ireland called their Saxon neighbours "Sassenach" and the Celts of Wales "Saes". These words live on as the Scottish people of today call the English "Sassenach", as a usually friendly term of abuse for the ancient "enemy".

But in 1742, when Jamie meets his "Sassenach" whose correct name is Claire Randall, "Sassenach" still was a hostile expression for the hateful Englishman. But as you might know the Scottish accent softens even harsh remarks, so "Sassenach" does sound fairly friendly to us. And maybe Jamie was the first one to use it in the same teasing manner as the Scottish people use it today for all strangers who happen to come to Scotland.

Enjoy your novel and keep on reading

Mrs Gobbledygook

26 March 2007