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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(adj.) miserable and gloomy-looking from cold or illness

Owls have long been considered wise old sages, but they also have a less positive reputation in folklore as the woodland embodiment of glumness, grumpiness, querulousness, and solitude.

This reputation is chiefly borne out by folktales and fables like The Buke of the Howlat, a curious fifteenth century poem by the Scottish writer Richard Holland, which tells the story of a young owl, or “howlat,” who is becomes so vain and arrogant when Mother Nature fashions a colourful new plumage for him, that the other birds call upon her to take back her gift, leaving the miserable owl to reflect bitterly on the lesson he has learned.

The owl’s reputation for sullenness is also borne out in the dictionary. The word howlet itself, for instance, can be used as a verb meaning ‘to act unsociably’, or ‘to go about with a miserable expression’. An oolet is a peevish or irritated child. The word owl itself can be used to mean ‘to act wisely despite knowing nothing’. And according to the Scottish National Dictionary, its Scots equivalent, ool, can be used to mean ‘to treat someone harshly’, or ‘to ruin someone’s good mood’.

Over time, ool morphed into oor, and from there inspired an adjective, oorie or oury, that came to be variously used to mean ‘dismal looking’, ‘cold and bleak’, ‘haunted by spirits’, ‘overcast’, ‘lonely’, ‘foreboding’, and even—according to the Edinburgh author and antiquarian James Sibbald—‘having the hair on end, like a horse overcome with cold’.

It’s not just horses who are susceptible to the ill-effects of the cold, of course, so feel free to use oorie to describe any piqued mood caused by illness or bad weather that leaves you miserable and gloomy-looking.

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