What does ‘birl’ mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: birl…

The contemporary definition of the word birl, refers to a boy(ish)-girl or girl(ish)-boy. In other words, it is someone who falls in between the traditional binary gender system, or someone who rejects it altogether.

When I read the word in Damian Barr’s magnificent memoir, Maggie & Me, however, I knew that wasn’t what he was talking about. Here is how Barr used the word:

The music for Tales of the Unexpected sounds like an ice-cream van slowed right down… Skulls and puppets and play cards birl round and round.

In his usage, it’s a synonym for spin or whirl. The origin of the term is Scottish (as is Barr) and the archaic meaning of the word meant to ply one’s guests with drink, which, I assume is what would lead to the spinning or birling.

The more distant origin of the word is Old English — byrelian which means “to give or serve a drink to.”

In Canada, where I live, the term birl can also refer to a sport by lumberjacks, in which they cause logs to spin while running on those logs while they’re in the water. If you’ve never seen the sport, it’s quite exciting and dramatic to watch. View a YouTube clip here.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on May 15/19.

Scroll to Top