"Cutty sark" is 18th-century Scots for "short chemise" or "short undergarment". Hyphenated, Cutty-sark was a nickname given to the witch Nannie Dee, a fictional character created by Robert Burns in his Tam o' Shanter, after the garment she wore. The figurehead of the tea clipper Cutty Sark is named after the character and a brand of Scotch whisky is named in turn for the ship.
The earliest recorded literary usage of the term cutty sark (as opposed to older usage of the two separate words) is by Dougal Graham in c. 1779 (the year of his death): "A cutty sark of guide harn sheet, My mitter he pe spin, mattam."
Tam o' Shanter's witch
In Burns' 1791 poem Tam o' Shanter, the drunken Tam, riding home on his horse, happens upon a witches' dance. Among the dancing figures is a particularly beautiful young witch named Nannie (Scots pet-form of Anna), "ae winsome wench and wawlie" (line 164). She is wearing a harn (linen) sark (nightshirt) which fitted her as a child (a "lassie") but is now rather too short for her:
- Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn,
- That while a lassie she had worn,
- In longitude tho' sorely scanty,
- It was her best, and she was vauntie.
- Ah! little kend thy reverend grannie
- That sark she coft for her wee Nannie
- Wi' twa pund Scots ('twas a' her riches)
- Wad ever graced a dance of witches! (lines 171ff)
Tam is so enthralled by the erotic spectacle that he cannot contain himself and yells out "Weel done, Cutty-sark!" (line 189). The witches are now alerted to his presence and pursue him. Tam heads for the River Doon, because, according to folklore, witches cannot cross running water. He makes it across the bridge to safety, but not before Nannie, the "Cutty-sark", has torn the tail from his horse. The poem ends ironically, with a mock warning to all men of the devilish consequences of thinking about scantily-clad females.
The popularity of this poem was such that the phrase Well done, Cutty-sark! entered the English language via Scots as an exclamation similar to "Bravo!" Literary allusions to the original Cutty-sark abound. In Ulysses, James Joyce writes: "Laughing witches in red cutty sarks ride through the air on broom sticks" (p. 695).
- "cutty(-ie) sark, a short chemise or undergarment" Archived 26 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine., Dictionary of the Scots Language, accessed 21 May 2007
- "Cut, Cutt, v. ... [Early ME. cutte, kutte, cute, of obscure origin." Archived 26 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine., Dictionary of the Scots Language, accessed 21 May 2007
- "Sark, Serk, n. Also: sarke, shark; sairk; syrk. [North. and midl. ME serc (Cursor M.), serke (Manning), scherk (14th c.), late ME sarke (c1440), north. e.m.E. sark (1515), OE serc, ON serk-r... The male or female body-garment worn nearest the skin; a shift, chemise, shirt." Archived 26 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine., Dictionary of the Scots Language, accessed 21 May 2007