What does ‘skirling’ 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: skirling…

I love onomatopoeia — words imitating the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to. Examples? Buzz. Sizzle. Cuckoo.

And when I recently encountered the word skirling, I assumed it fell into the same category. (Perhaps it was the similarity to whirling — another onomatopoeic word — that led me to believe that?) I encountered skirling in the new novel Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill. Here is how the author used it:

I imagined I could feel the graffiti skirling out in twisted bands behind my shirt like tentacles of smoke.

The reference to “tentacles of smoke” further reinforced my notion that the word had something to do with whirling. Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked up the word and discovered it meant a shrill sound — either a shriek or more typically, the sound of bagpipes. (I know. Some people would say those two sounds are the same.)

The word dates back to Middle English (Scots) scirlen, skrillen meaning to scream or to shriek. Scottish poet Robert Sempill first used it for bagpipes in the mid-1600s. And the original root is thought to be the Norwegian word, skræla meaning to cry aloud.