A Lovely New Word

As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.
Martin Luther King,  speech, Aug. 16, 1967

I recently received  an email from my sister in Los Angeles, who is almost as also obsessed with words, as follows:

“Judith,  a word for you to use in a future blog.   You may already know this word, although it’s not much used today

THIRLED:   a term used to describe men who worked in the coal mines of Scotland. A thirled man was bonded for life to a company and wore a metal collar around his neck with the name of his owner stamped on it. These workers stood deep in the pits and cut coal that their wives and children then carried to the surface in baskets. They were paid two shilings and sixpence (sixty cents) for twelve hours of work and out of that, they paid for their own keep and were not supplied with food, shelter, or medical care. To survive, many families were forced to work all day and into the night in the freezing and dirty coal mines of Scotland. Thirled men were serfs, and if one removed his brass collar and ran away, he was captured by the sheriff and returned to his owner. His punishment was by the lash. He was punished for having stolen himself and his services from his master. This was the law in Scotland as late as 1799.”

This definition of the word comes from “I Still Dream About You”, a novel by Fannie Flagg. The online definitions all seem to concentrate on the old English use of the word to indicate boring or drilling.

I hadn’t ever heard the word and just as Maggie and Brenda do in the book I Googled the word thirled.  But from Wikipedia I learned “Thirlage was the feudal law by which the laird (lord) could force all those vassals living on his lands to bring their grain to his mill to be ground, the justification was that an essential service was being provided at a great expense and had to be paid for by the users. Additionally vassals had to carry out repairs on the mill, maintaining the lade and weir as well as conveying new millstones to the site. ”

So while vocal Scottish abolitionists such as Charles Grant, Allan Ramsay and the Macauley Brothers Colin and Zachary, were worrying about slaves in other parts of the world it would appear that a form of slavery was flourishing in the British Isles as late as 1799.


Thanks to my big sister for bringing this word to my attention.


22 responses to “A Lovely New Word

  1. What a wonderful word! I googled it, too, and found that ‘nostril’ comes from ‘nose’ + ‘thirl’ meaning a borehole! Wondering if there’s any connection with ‘thrall’ – haven’t gone into it yet.


  2. I learned about thirled, and hurled. 🙂 Wow, we don’t hear much about that, and it’s no wonder. I love learning new words, even if I don’t like their definition very much. Thanks, Judith!


  3. The Industrial Revolution began in England. Seems they learned the worker exploitation part very well as they did in USA. I have always advocated strong unions and so many are against unions and I don’t understand why. They are the worker’s only advocate. There is new exploitation now in USA: no pension, no health insurance, no sick leave and low pay. Take it or leave it.


    • When we first arrived here in N in the 60s unions were very strong in fact they were compulsory if you earned under a certain figure. Most were lead by militant people (men mostly) who had emigrated from the UK. They were not greatly loved by many and have since become optional for all.


  4. sad, sad times all around.


  5. I often wonder why I see so many things from a different point of view than others. At first I couldn’t work out why the men who worked in the Scottish coalmines would be so happy … then I re-read the first word with “ir” instead of “ri” and followed the gist of the rest of the blog with a lot more ease. 🙂


  6. I love reading about these words and finding their weirdest meanings!


  7. Pingback: Coalmining scotland | Africusa

  8. I always learn something new and worthwhile here. Thanks for sharing.


  9. I learned several new things today. Thank you. 🙂


  10. I recognized the word but didn’t know where I’d heard it…I read “I still dream about you” so that must be where I knew it from.


  11. Pingback: Words, Words and More Words | I choose how I will spend the rest of my life

  12. and I Googled it for the exact same reason!


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