to oxter

A very small thing, but entertaining (to me at any rate): the verb to oxter, in this passage from Bernie McGill’s The Butterfly Cabinet (2011), p. 201:

Then you came back, the pair of you, dripping with seawater, and lay down on the grass to dry.  And you said, ‘When was the last time you felt the sea on you, Nanny Madd?’ and your gray eyes twinkled, and I smiled back, and you jumped up and shouted to Conor, and the two of you took me by the hands, laughing, down to the shore. You slipped off my shoes, peeled down my stockings. At the water’s edge you took me by one elbow, Conor took me by the other, and between the two of you, you oxtered me in over the rippled sand until the water licked my ankles…

(Hat tip to Eve Clark, who noticed the passage because I mentioned the noun oxter in my SemFest talk last Friday.)

We start with the noun, in Scotland and northern England. From OED3 (March 2005):

Chiefly Eng. regional (north.), Sc., Irish English, and Manx English.

The armpit; (also more generally) the underside of the upper arm; the fold of the arm when bent against the body. Also: the armhole of a coat, jacket, etc.

The cites begin in the 15th and 16th centuries and continue through the 20th, where we find:

1914   J. Joyce Dubliners 206   Many a good man went to the penny-a-week school with a sod of turf under his oxter.

1964   Listener 19 Mar. 494/3   Alan Whicker..stood..on that bubbling pitch lake of Trinidad..and let us hear a calypso from a man who’d fallen into it up to his oxters.

1991   R. A. Jamieson Day at Office 85   Togher came in to the kitchen..buttoning the cuffs of a shirt which was ripped at one oxter.

McGill is from Northern Ireland; Joyce was Irish; and Jamieson is Scottish. Journalist Alan Whicker had no particular connection to that part of the world, nor did the BBC’s magazine The Listener, so the Listener cite suggests that the noun has some wider currency in the U.K.

The noun was verbed within a few hundred years; the OED‘s first cite is from Robert Burns:

a1796   R. Burns in J. Johnson Scots Musical Museum (1803) VI. 585   The Priest he was oxter’d, the Clerk he was carried.

The image here is of the priest being taken out supported by one person under each of his shoulders. The OED‘s gloss and the remainder of the cites:

trans. To support by the arm, walk arm in arm with; to take or carry under the arm; to embrace, put one’s arm around.

1808   J. Mayne Siller Gun ii. 46   Lads oxter lasses without fear, Or dance like wud.

a1813   A. Wilson Poems & Lit. Prose (1876) i. 67   Some oxtering pocks o’ silken ware, Some lapfus hov’t like kechan.

a1850   R. Gilfillan Poems & Songs (1851) 21,   I couldna gang by her for shame, I couldna but speak, else be saucy, Sae I had to oxter her hame, An’ buy a silk snood to the lassie.

1894   R. O. Heslop Northumberland Words 519   When this master of minstrelsy oxtered his blether.

1932   ‘L. G. Gibbon’ Sunset Song 58   Will whispered Let’s sleep together. So then they did, oxtering one the other till they were real warm.

1988   J. Black Yellow Wednesday 39   They became so helpless they slid off their seats on to the floor and a few of us had to oxter them out to the vestibule to recover.

2000   M. Fitt But n Ben A-go-go xiii. 98   Cairried. Oxtered. Stretchered oot on the shooders o an employee.

(But n Ben A-Go-Go is a science fiction work by Scots writer Matthew Fitt, notable for being entirely in the Scots language. (link) A but n ben is a two-roomed house: living room and bedroom.)

You can be oxtered off the stage or out the door. In certain parts of the world.

2 Responses to “to oxter”

  1. Stan Says:

    Entertaining for me too. Oxter (n.) is in my idiolect (west of Ireland); growing up, I heard and used it regularly, for example in the phrase “up to me oxters”, equivalent to “up to my neck/eyes/eyeballs” in the sense of being very busy or preoccupied. I don’t recall encountering it used as a verb, though I may have done and forgotten.

    Bernard Share, in Slanguage, adds: “oxtercog [vb. <ME cogge (n.), armpit]. Go arm in arm. 2001 Seamus Heaney, Electric Light, ‘Vitruviana’: ‘In the deep pool at Portstewart, I waded in/Up to the chest, then stood there half-suspended/Like Vitruvian man, both legs wide apart,/Both arms out buoyant to the fingertips,/Oxter-cogged on water.’

  2. IzzyCohen Says:

    The XT in oxter seems to be a reversal of Western Semitic shin-het-yod (armpit) which sounded like TeXi when the Romans controlled the area. Antioch (with nasalization before the T) was the armpit on the Phoenician anthropomorphic map of that area. Today its ruins are next to Antakya in Turkey.

    The river that flows through that area is the Orontes, which seems to be a reversal of Latin sudore (sweat) + nasalization before the T. Perhaps it is reversed because that river flows northward and most rivers in that part of the world do not.

    There is an obvious connection between armpit & sweat. Compare Russian pot
    and podmyshka .

    On anthropomorphic maps, rivers are sometimes named after bodily excretions. For example, the Milk River in Alberta, Canada is the lactation of the Blackfoot female map in that area.

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