“Douse the glim!”

“Douse the glim!” March 17, 2024


Irish green
A landscape in Ireland: John Fielding / Hay Bluff across the Golden Valley from Dorstone Hill / CC BY-SA 2.0 (Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph)

First of all, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all of those out there who have ever been Irish, or thought about being Irish, or know somebody who’s Irish, or have heard of either Ireland or St. Patrick’s Day, or who haven’t.  We enjoyed our corned beef, cabbage, carrots, and potatoes today, and I hope that you did, or will, also.

And, while I’m doling out best wishes, we all need to congratulate Mr. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin on his unforeseen election to a fifth term as the president of Russia — he having also generously served as Russia’s prime minister from 1999 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2012.  Of course, there were some astute Russia-watchers who actually foresaw his re-election.  But I think it fair to say that even they are probably surprised at how wide his margin of victory is proving to be.  And, on that score, the results are still not fully and properly counted.  Can they perhaps even find some more votes?  (I’m not referring to Georgia, of course.  It has been an independent nation since 1991.)

In the 2002 Iraqi presidential election, the late Saddam Hussein, the country’s phenomenally popular leader, won 100 percent of the ballots cast.  Not a single Iraqi, no matter how stupid or depraved or even bumbling and incompetent (remember Florida’s “hanging chads” from two years earlier?) cast a vote against him.  The attention of the world is now riveted upon Russia:  Can Vladimir Putin exceed Saddam Hussein’s record?  Can he reach one hundred and one percent?  Personally, I’m on pins and needles.

The church at Helgheim.
Helgheim kyrkje i Jølster, ved Jølstravatnet (Helgheim Church in Jølster [Norway], with Lake Jølster]
This photo, from the 1880s or 1890s, shows the little church that my grandmother, a life-long Lutheran, attended until she left for America at eighteen (i.e., during this very time). The farm on which she was born and raised, Søgnesand, is at the very end of the KJøsnesfjord, the area in the distance, enclosed by mountains, at the center of the photograph. They had to travel to the church by boat or, in the winter, sometimes by walking across the iced-over lake. I’ve visited this area several times, and love it very much. The farm still belongs to relatives of mine.
(Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Douse the glim!

I was minding my own business early last week when, for no apparent reason, that rather obscure phrase swam across my mental radar screen.  I hadn’t thought of it for several decades, but I remember that my mother occasionally used it in the sense of “turn out the light!”  It didn’t occur to me that the phrase was, well, rather odd.  In all the years since, though, I’ve never heard anybody else use it.

Happily, I now possess the awesome power of the internet.  So I Googled Douse the glim.  As I expected, the phrase turns out to be Scottish.  And it does in fact mean “Put out the light; also knock out a man’s eye. To douse is to lower in haste, as “Douse the top-sail” Glim, gleam, glimmer, are variants of the same word.”

With a few seconds’ search, it’s not difficult to find such examples as these:

Come, track up the dancers, and douse the glim.“The Disowned, Complete” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

But douse the glim there; we shan’t want it, and it might give the alarm.“Eric” by Frederic William Farrar

Just goin’ to douse the glim this minute.“Fair Harbor” by Joseph Crosby Lincoln

I doused the glim long ago.“The Telegraph Messenger Boy” by Edward S. Ellis

At this point the order was given, “Douse the glim,” and all lights were extinguished.“The Mountains of Oregon” by William Gladstone Steel

Then I doused the glim and turned in, for I knew you wouldn’t be along until daylight.“The Rival Pitchers” by Lester Chadwick

Raise the light a little, Jim,
For it’s getting rather dim,
And, with such a storm a-howlin’, ’twill not do to douse the glim.
Hustle down the curtains, Lu;
Poke the fire a little, Su;
This is somethin’ of a flurry, mother, somethin’ of a–whew!
According to something called the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, under the variant spelling to dowse, the verb means
To take down: as, Dowse the pendant. Dowse your dog vane; take the cockade out of your hat. Dowse the glim; put out the candle.

Curiously, there is a remote farm in Namaqualand, South Africa, that bears the name “Douse the Glim,” as well as a “Douse the Glim Cave” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  (See here for the latter.)  As for the former, there are apparently two distinct stories about the origin of the name:

The first story tells of a Scottish regiment  encamped here in the Nothern Cape in 1902 during the  Anglo-Boer War. To keep their location a secret, at dusk the sergeants would tell the troops to ‘douse the glim’, or put out their lights.

The second story, and the one I prefer, is based on the time where a tired surveyor who, in his tent one night, somewhat irately told his assistant  “Och, Douse the Glim and go to sleep mon!”

Now, I’m not altogether in the dark about how my mother came by the phrase.  Her grandmother was from Scotland, and there is other Scots ancestry back a ways.  Somehow, I guess, that phrase was passed down.

Kjøsnesfjord and Søgnesand
Looking from the end of Kjøsnesfjord, a little arm of Lake Jølster, toward the town of Skei in the very far distance. The farm on which my grandmother grew up is (barely) visible on the left bank of the fjord, just beyond the glacial stream and the green ridge in the foreground. My wife took this photo with her iPhone a few years back during a visit to Norway.

Oddly, though, I can’t really think of any Scottish thing else that was transmitted to me.  To the extent that I was conscious of my ethnic background growing up — my ancestry comes from Norway, Denmark, and England, as well as Scotland — that background  was Norwegian.  Such awareness came via my paternal grandmother, who emigrated alone from Norway in her late teens and who died when I was five years old.  (My paternal grandfather came from Denmark, but as an infant.)  And, apart from images of the cute little Lutheran church at Helgheim, on the northern shore of Jølstravatnet, that she attended, it’s mostly limited to foods:  I absolutely love potato lefse, which I can only persuade my wife to make about once every four or five years because it’s so labor-intensive and makes such a mess in the kitchen.  (Flour lefse [aka Hardanger lefse?], which, I now realize, may be much more common in Norway, wasn’t a part of my growing-up.)  And I grew up with apotropaic jokes about klub and gjetost and lutefisk.

But douse the glim?  What on earth made me suddenly think of that?

Have any of you ever encountered the phrase?  Are there any other random ethnic curiosities — whether foods or phrases or kilts or Christmas customs or anything else — that have come down to you from your ancestors?



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