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Pronounced /ˌɡæbəˈlʌnzɪ/Help with pronunciation

A good Scots word this, of the medieval period, meaning a beggar, though sadly nobody has much idea where it comes from. The first part looks as though it might have something to do with gaberdine, originally a garment worn by a pilgrim. This may well be, because another name for a gaberlunzie in medieval times was bluegown. Taken from the colour of his dress, this was the name in medieval Scotland for a person who was a king’s licensed beggar or beadsman, a person who was paid to pray for the souls of others by telling his beads. (Beadsman comes from the original meaning of bead, a prayer; it was only later that it took on its modern sense through association with the rosary.)

You will find it many times in Scots literature, especially in the old ballad The Gaberlunzie Man and in James Ballantine’s story The Gaberlunzie’s Wallet. But if it’s Scots we’re after, we had best turn to Sir Walter Scott. He doesn’t fail, and here it is in Redgauntlet: “Better say naething about the laird, my man, and tell me instead, what sort of a chap ye are that are sae ready to cleik in with an auld gaberlunzie fiddler?” (Cleik, a version of cleek, from a noun meaning a hook, so to link oneself with somebody.) It’s also in several other of Scott’s books, so he probably must be given the credit of having popularised it to readers outside Scotland.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Feb. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gab1.htm
Last modified: 3 February 2001.