Word of the Week

Week three: SARK (probability 3199), by David Sutton

A SARK is a garment worn next to the skin, a shirt or chemise. The word derives from Old Norse serkr, and has no connection with the name of the Channel Island, which is of French origin. Its best-known occurrence now is probably in the poem 'Tam O'Shanter', by Robert Burns, which describes how ne'er-do-well Tam, on his way home from the pub, comes upon a coven of witches dancing. One particularly young and comely witch is clad only in a 'cutty sark, o' Paisley harn', (HARN means linen, and Paisley is a Scots town famous for its manufacture), and Tam cannot resist shouting out 'Weel done, cutty sark', at which the witches pursue him till he manages to escape by crossing running water.

CUTTY means 'cut short', which helps to explain Tam's excitement, and can also be a noun: a CUTTY is a short clay pipe. The famous tea-clipper 'Cutty Sark' took its name from Burns's poem, and the epithet also occurs in the title of a well-known folk song, 'The Cutty Wren', about the old custom of hunting for wrens on St Stephen's Day. The Ian Campbell Folk Group did a good version back in the sixties.

But to return to SARK. This also occurs as an element in BERSERK (or BARESARK), generally taken to mean one who fought without armour, or shirt of chain-mail, though there is a rival etymology which sees it as meaning 'clad in a bear's pelt'. This latter derivation has a lot going for it: a bear's pelt would make a good practical covering, and would inspire fear in one's foes, the assumption being that any self-respecting warrior would have killed the bear himself. There was also the belief that certain warriors could actually change into bears during combat, like Beorn in 'The Hobbit'. But fighting 'bare of sark' might have had its merits too, since if you are going to suffer a sword-cut (or indeed a gunshot wound) you are better off not having fragments of material driven into the wound to cause infection, especially in those days before antibiotics. Fortunately BERSERKS or BARESARKS are rare at Scrabble tournaments.

Finally there is a noun SARKING (though no SARKED*), which means thin boards used for sheathing, as above the rafters, and under shingles or slates.


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