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Q From Kamil Ibragimov, Uzbekistan: While reading The Stand by Stephen King I came across the word dauncy: ‘Just the thought of crawling around on that roof, so high above the ground, made Larry’s guts feel dauncy’. Of course the context makes it clear what is meant, but I’d like to know more about it. It being Stephen King, I’d guess it’s American in origin, but I’m not sure. What can you say about it?

A It might seem to be American, but it’s actually from the British side of the Atlantic. It was formerly common as a Scottish and Northern English word in several senses, though much less so now.

In Britain, the spelling was more often donsie or donsey, as it can also be sometimes in the US. It derives from Gaelic donas, bad luck, harm or ill will. The main sense was of somebody who was unfortunate, luckless, sickly or feeble. It turns up in a poem by Robert Burns addressed to an old mare (I’ll spare you the exact quotation, as I would have to explain almost every word in it). An example that’s more easily understandable is in John Galt’s The Ayrshire Legatees of 1821, “I promised that donsie body, Willy Shachle ... that when I got my legacy, he should get a guinea”. It could also sometimes mean a person who was affectedly or fastidiously neat or trim, with a sense of self-importance attached.

The American sense, in either spelling, has always been rather a regional term, and these days is rare. The usual meaning is of a person who is feeling sick, weak, lacking in vitality, or not completely well.

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