Nae Luck

Note: pages in our 18c Leverhulme study section were originally published on the website in 2010. Links have since been checked and updated.

Jean Adams and the OED

As outlined on the previous page, Adam was a low-status figure, and the single published volume which can be securely assigned to her authorship, Miscellany Poems (1734), was judged to be poor. No quotation from this work appears in the first edition of OED, though it has now been quoted twice in OED3. The ballad ‘There’s Nae Luck About the House’, on the other hand, was known to the OED1 editors and provided them with some useful lexical evidence – although they cited it inconsistently and in all cases attributed it to the male poet W. J. Mickle (Adam’s strong case for authorship is discussed on the previous page). It has been further quoted from, again inconsistently, in OED3, and again attributed to Mickle. This page discusses OED’s treatment of the ballad in both the Dictionary’s first and its third editions.

‘There’s Nae Luck About the House’

The three quotations from the ballad in the first edition of OED occur in the entries for:

  • and (a special sense of the conjunction): quoted from ‘?1770 W. J. Mickle There’s Nae Luck aboot the House
  • balk (‘a tie-beam of a house, stretching from wall to wall’): quoted from ‘c1770 ? Mickle Nae Luck about the Hoose
  • turkey slipper (slipper ‘of Turkish workmanship or manufacture, or made in imitation of this’): quoted from ‘1760 W. J. Mickle Song, “There’s nae Luck aboot the House”
“There’s Nae Luck About the House”. Source: National Library of Scotland

So here we have one author (identity disputed outside the OED; see authorship discussion on previous page), two different dates, and three different spelling combinations of the ballad’s title! This may seem sloppy, but we should not be surprised, given the circumstances under which the first edition of OED was researched and assembled, the enormous quantity of data the editors had to deal with, and the impossibility of keeping consistent bibliographical and other sorts of records over so long a period of time (for more information on these matters see EOED pages on Initial practice and Early progress).

The explanation for such divergent forms of reference and dates must be that the editors were in each instance quoting from a different edition of the ballad, which was reprinted a number of times (often with textual variations) during the 18th century and subsequently. Ideally they should have identified the earliest printed version and stuck to that. Even then, assigning a date to a ballad, i.e. in origin an oral composition, is problematic: whether or not Jean Adam was the ballad’s author, it was composed well before her death in 1765, since she was remembered singing it as a schoolmistress (Cromek 1810: 191).

So what is the correct date to go for? EOED has been unable to find the 1860 edition used by the OED1 editors. Although searching ECCO turns up a reference to the ballad as a known work as early as c. 1745, A Song to the Tune of, The Abbot of Canterbury, &c. [Edinburgh?], [1745?], ESTC Number T011381,1 the earliest identifiable printing on this resource seems to be that of The Ancient and Modern Scots Songs, Heroic Ballads, &c. Now First Collected into One Body (Edinburgh, 1769).

Lexical comment

The ballad’s examples of and and turkey slipper are notable. ‘There’s Nae Luck About the House’ provides the earliest citation in OED1 (and OED2, since the entry was unrevised by the Supplement) for sense 12 of the conjunction and, ‘In expressing surprise at, or asking the truth of, what one has already heard’. In many of its versions, the ballad begins:

And are ye sure the news is true?

And are ye sure he’s weel?

One of OED’s main aims is providing the earliest possible date for a usage, so this means that the date ascribed to the ballad is significant. This entry is one of those that has been updated by OED3 (in a draft entry of June 2008), where the ballad example is given the second of the two OED1 dates, viz. ‘?1770’ rather than 1760 (and where it remains attributed to Mickle), and keeps its place as the earliest cited example of this sense of and. Presumably OED3 also couldn’t identify the 1760 edition referred to in OED1 – but they would certainly have had access to the 1769 one available on ECCO. Why didn’t they use it? Perhaps because, most inconveniently, the first line of the ballad is different in this printing! It begins with a ‘But’, not an ‘And’:

But are you sure the news is true?

And are you sure he’s weel?

However, the 1769 edition does provide an example of the desired sense of and in the last stanza of the ballad:

And will I see his face again,

And will I hear him speak?

OED3’s date of ?1770 should therefore be corrected to 1769 – not least since the editors cite 1769 for biggonet, as discussed below.

Turkish slippers. Source: Fleming Museum, University of Vermont

Turkey slipper is a different case, and is interesting because the ballad supplies the only example the OED quotes for this term (as yet unrevised). The form is listed at the end of the entry for Turkey, among a batch of other adjectival uses, all of which are given a general explanation: ‘of Turkish workmanship or manufacture, or made in imitation of this’. The line itself reads:

My Turkey slippers maun gae on,

My stockings pearly blue

But OED1 gives us no information as to what exactly turkey slippers were (made from carpet material? or with curled up pointed toes?): for that we shall have to wait until OED3 revises the entry.

Biggonet is also worth a comment. This is a Scottish word (meaning ‘a woman’s cap’) for which ‘There’s Nae Luck’ is newly quoted in OED3, in a draft revision of September 2008 (the same year that the entry for and was revised):

Bring down to me my bigonet,

My bishop-sattin gown

OED1 had only two quotations for the term, dated 1725 and 1818 (the latter from Walter Scott, as is often the case with historical Scottish terms in OED). The revisers have managed to find a further three examples: one earlier, of 1637, one later, of 1837, and one from the ballad, which this time they have taken from the 1769 edition already mentioned, again attributing the ballad to Mickle [Aug 2018 update: the OED3 entry has since been further revised and the ballad is now quoted from ‘D. Herd Anc. & Mod. Scots Songs 325′]. As often in their revised entries, OED3 give us particularly interesting new comment on etymology: here they compare the French regional term béguinet, béguinette, and cross-refer us to another revised entry, for biggin (a cap), derived from ‘Middle French beguin (French béguin) child’s cap or coif (16th cent.)’, i.e. a ‘type of headgear, originally with allusion to the distinctive type of coif fastened beneath the chin worn by the Beguines (1387)’.

A further term in the ballad remains as yet unexplained. As well as her biggonet, the narrator calls for her ‘bishop-sattin gown’. What does bishop-sattin mean? The first two editions of OED do not tell us, but we can hope for a new entry on this when the third edition tackles this section of the alphabet.

Conclusion: This ballad, which contemporary biographical scholarship ascribes to Jean Adam, yields a rich haul of lexical evidence for OED. The revision has yet to take advantage of this and is currently quoting from it inconsistently (i.e. with varying dates and authorship).

Note on image of “There’s Nae Luck About the House” 

Image scanned from the 1853 edition of the Scots Musical Museum, James Johnson and Robert Burns (Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood & Sons, 1853), volume 1, song 44, p. 44; Scran code 000-000-499-594-C; NLS shelfmark Mus.L.S.44-47. Courtesy of the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland.

Last updated on 8 October 2019


  1. Both of the two apparently identical pages of this work print ‘The Scotch Fiddle, | A NEW SONG, | sung with great Applause in St James’s | AIR.-“There’s nae luck about the House”‘.