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Pronounced /ˈtɜːɡɪrm/Help with pronunciation

The Oxford English Dictionary has more than 100 words for various methods of divination (mostly ending in –mancy). Techniques include inspecting the entrails of animals, studying the appearance of water in a basin or the look of one’s urine, watching the movements of mice, observing the cries of birds, or reading random sentences from a book. Of them all, this one is possibly the weirdest.

When investigating anything historical to do with the Scots, Sir Walter Scott usually pops up. He describes the method in a scornful footnote to his Lady of the Lake:

The Highlanders, like all rude people, had various superstitious modes of inquiring into futurity. One of the most noted was the Taghairm. A person was wrapped up in the skin of a newly-slain bullock, and deposited beside a waterfall, or at the bottom of a precipice, or in some other strange, wild, and unusual situation, where the scenery around him suggested nothing but objects of horror. In this situation, he revolved in his mind the question proposed; and whatever was impressed upon him by his exalted imagination, passed for the inspiration of the disembodied spirits, who haunt these desolate recesses.

The method is well recorded, though with variations in method from place to place. The same name has been applied to a more barbarous custom, in which live black cats were spitted and roasted over a fire, their dying wails supposedly calling a cat-spirit, sometimes called Big Ears, who would grant one favours.

The word, in Scots Gaelic, refers to a summons or invocation.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Jan. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 12 January 2002.