I grew up in southern England, and now live in Scotland. There are many interesting and well-known quirks of usage that differ between Southern English English and the various Scottish dialects and Scots, but one that I've never heard discussed, and one that is so subtle that I can't quite put my finger on it, is usage of the adjective sore.

In Scotland, sore is pretty much synonymous, and interchangeable, with painful. The OED definition seems to agree, and I get the impression that American usage matches this.

But when I moved to Scotland, I found that some standard Scots usages of sore seemed slightly jarring to me. In my idiolect growing up, some things could be sore:

  • Grazes, cuts and burns are sore.

I'm sore all over from staying out too long in the sun. (This is an unlikely situation to occur in Scotland.)

  • Aching muscles are sore.

I'm still sore from yesterday's workout.

  • There are fixed expressions sore head, sore belly̧, sore loser which are always acceptable.

However, other usages, typical in Scotland, seem subtly off, or at least non-idiomatic, to me.

  • [on seeing someone being punched in the face, or falling over] That looks sore! where my idiolect would have had That looks painful
  • The bruise on my arm is sore where I'd have The bruise on my arm is tender

I can't quite put my finger on the rules for sore in my native idiolect. I thought maybe it was related to the location of the pain (on the skin rather than internal), but I wouldn't have described a bruise as sore. Maybe it's related to the origin or severity of the pain, but I'm really not sure.

I can't find any evidence online to support the restricted usage of sore in my native idiolect. Does anyone else recognise this or know anything about it?

  • 1
    Hello, tea-and-cake. The OED definition? I bet OED gives quite a few senses/subsenses. Please add the actual definition, linked and attributed. It's probably another Oxford dictionary, say Lexico. Aug 19, 2021 at 10:31
  • I have never come across this limitation on the use of "sore". In my experience Australian usage is the same as Scottish in this respect, despite the megametres between us.
    – Peter
    Aug 19, 2021 at 11:49
  • Perhaps the very slight difference you've noticed is that, in Southern English, to say that something is "sore" is to say that it is generating pain signals independently of any input whereas "painful" suggests that the pain signals are only generated in response to a stimulus. That is that a Gorbals kiss triggers the pain because of the injury and that your bruise only hurts when it's touched. The Scottish usage, on the other hand, does not make that distinction.
    – BoldBen
    Aug 19, 2021 at 14:40
  • I don't see such a big difference. After someone has hit you, "looks sore" seem the same as all the other uses.
    – Lambie
    Sep 18, 2021 at 14:37

3 Answers 3


Lexico gives the causing pain subsense you mention for painful in your example:

painful [adjective]

1 (of a part of the body) affected with pain.

  • her ankle was very painful


1.1 causing physical pain.

  • a painful knock

The dictionaries I've checked do not carry this 'causing pain' subsense for sore, but an 'obvious potential if not actual source of pain' is licensed for the nounal use (I've a painful sore on my leg; I've a sore on my leg that's beginning to itch; I've a cold sore that's not a problem at the moment).

However, like you, I'd certainly always choose 'That looks painful' for a nasty fall in my idiolect (Manchester, NW England).


On the other hand, Merriam-Webster does give the 'sensitive / susceptible to pain if nudged etc' subsense for sore:

sore [adjective] [Kids Definition of sore] ...

1: very painful or sensitive : TENDER [emphasis mine]

But the main dictionary does not, and it is not given by CD or Lexico.

AHD concurs with the above definition:

sore [adjective]

  1. Painful to the touch; tender.

as does R H K Webster's:

sore [adjective]

  1. physically painful or sensitive [emphasis mine]

And Collins conflates wondrously: (1) 'painfully sensitive' ...!

I seem to remember over-egging an owie, using "It's really sore" for "It gives a sharp stab of pain if you touch it ... so don't (and a bar of chocolate would make it a bit better)". Language is often broadened, becoming imprecise, often for effect or through carelessness. And the broadened senses of words often become idiomatic. "That looks sore" on seeing an ugly bruise is perfectly acceptable, whether or not the bruise is giving rise to discomfort, and aids in the broadening.

Nowadays, I'd distinguish between "The bruise on my arm is sore" and "The bruise on my arm is tender", only using the former if there was constant or frequent actual pain.

  • 1
    The equivalent Scots word "sair" seems to have senses beyond the usual English meanings: "a sair matter", "a sair winter", someone being "sair on her claes" (hard on/damaging to her clothes). English has "a sore point", meaning an issue which causes someone discomfort, but this seems a specific idiom.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 13, 2022 at 15:37

Sore started life as a noun and very quickly became an adjective.


sore, n.1

Etymology: Old English sár strong neuter, = Old Frisian sêr (West Frisian sear , North Frisian siar ),

In the 9th century, it meant bodily or mental pain or suffering. This included sickness, disease; bodily affliction and a bodily injury; a wound.

In the 11th century, it was extended to A place in an animal body where the skin or flesh is diseased or injured so as to be painfully tender or raw; a sore place, such as that caused by an ulcer.

In the 14th century, it was used figuratively, and it was then that the word “painful” was first recorded in English. However, painful tended to be used to mean 1a. Causing or accompanied by mental pain or suffering; distressing, hurtful, which has a slightly more agentive nuance to it, whereas "sore" was more stative.

The adjective "sore" followed a similar path, and is now a true synonym of painful, and thus was applicable to any sort of suffering. It seems that the choice of application was at first universal but then became regional.

From a 15th century Scottish source, we have

1489 in T. Dickson Accounts. Treasurer Scotland (1877) I. 149 vij elne of quhyte to be logouris to the King, the tyme his leg wes sayre. – the time his leg was sore = painful.


In Ireland sore is also a synonym for painful, one may hear sentences such as the following “Yeah it was a rough match I’m fairly sore”. Or “yeah my biceps are rather sore after the gym”.

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