Dear Word Detective: “Glaikit” is a word of Scottish origin, meaning a silly, sappy expression on one’s face. Where did it come from? — Tim.
Good question. “Glaikit” is a new one on me, but I certainly know the expression it apparently describes. It’s the look otherwise sane people get when they see the kittens our local pet store has up for adoption. I was in there the other day, buying a 20-pound bag of gourmet cat chow, and there were at least five full-grown customers peering into the cage, emitting the sort of cooing and kissing sounds that would get you arrested if you made them on the subway. I wouldn’t dream of discouraging anyone willing to adopt a cat, but I do wonder if they’ll still be cooing when the little critter mistakes their legs for the fancy-schmancy scratching post they bought it.
“Glaikit” is indeed mostly heard in Scotland and northern England, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it’s an adjective originally, when it first appeared in the mid-15th century, meaning “senseless, foolish.” In later usage, it expanded a bit to include “thoughtless, flighty and giddy,” uses most frequently applied to women.
Tracing the origins of “glaikit” leads us into a bit of a maze. It is pretty certainly related to the noun “glaik,” also of Scots parentage, which means (according to the OED) “mocking deception,” most often used in phrases such as “to give one the glaiks,” meaning to cheat or swindle. “Glaik” as a noun has also been used to mean “a child’s puzzle,” “a flash of light” and as an expression of contempt for another person. There’s also a derivative verb, “to glaik,” meaning, variously, “to stare idly,” “to delude” and “to dazzle.” If this all seems a bit hazy and confusing, welcome to the club.
The probable root of “glaik” (and I’m glad there is one) is the only slightly less weird word “gleek,” which is now considered obsolete but in its day meant “a jibe or jest,” often in the phrase “to give someone the gleek,” meaning to trick or make fun of the person. Tracing “gleek” a bit further back, we find, at long last, a familiar word. The root of “gleek” turns out to be “glee,” which, although now most often used to mean “a feeling of delight,” originally meant “play or sport,” especially in the “mocking jest” sense.
So, to sum up, “glaikit” meaning basically “foolish” can be traced back to “glee” meaning “jest or trick.”