March 7, 2007


skirl (skerl) v. skirled, skirling, skirls
--intransitive. To produce a high, shrill, wailing tone. Used of bagpipes.
--transitive. To play (a piece) on bagpipes.

n. 1. The shrill sound made by the chanter pipe of bagpipes.
2. A shrill wailing sound:

"The skirl of a police whistle split the stillness" (Max Rohmer).
[Middle English skrillen, skirlen, probably of Scandinavian origin.]
--The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Fourth Edition, 2000.

skirl [Origin obscure.]
v.i. To whirl; to fly or sweep in a whirl.
n. A whirling snow or rain.

--Merriam-Webster's International Dictionary of the English Language Second Edition [a k a Webster 2 or W2].

Elisa, squatting on the ground, watched to see the crazy, loose-jointed wagon pass by. But it didn't pass by. It turned into the farm road in front of her house, crooked old wheels skirling and squeaking.--John Steinbeck

Not your everyday word--skirl--but it's one that can bring descriptive precision when you need it.

1.) Though bagpipe music may not be a part of your quotidian experience, you can, on those occasions when you do hear a bagpipe (such as parades), be ready with the most prescriptively accurate word we have to describe the instrument's unique sound: the skirl. "Hark! I can hear skirls and drum beats coming from past the curve in the road. The parade's about to arrive!"

2.) Using skirl to identify sounds similar to those of a bagpipe can bring onomatopoetic resonance to a phrase or sentence, as in
"crooked old wheels skirling";
"the skirl of a police whistle";
"the skirl of the attic door opening, slowly";
"the skirl of fat sizzling in a pan";
"the skirl of fish frying in the pan."
In fact, Webster 2 lists "skirl in the pan" as its own entry.

3.) Finally, skirl can bring its unique combination of sound and movement to a scene that is primarily visual. Compare: "A whirling of snow" to "A skirling of snow."

Today's word is a handy one. When the right moment comes along, give it a skirl!



  1. I would say that your woodburning stove skirls at that point when the fire takes hold of the lit kindling, yes? I like this word!

  2. Thanks for the comment. Yes. I wonder what causes that sound precisely? Glad you like the word. I first encountered it back in 60s in that sentence by Steinbeck "wheels skirling." I had to look it up then, and the word has been with me ever since. --BJ