“Bairn”

The gossip writer for my hometown Philadelphia Inquirer used an impressive three Britishisms in two sentences in yesterday’s paper:

“Pop star-thesp Pink has been gushing about her daughter, Willow Sage Hart, since the bairn was born in June 2011. But Doylestown [Pennsylvania]‘s proudest daughter wasn’t always so keen on becoming a mum.”

I’ve previously covered two of them; links will take you to the relevant entry. The third is bairn, meaning (one’s) child, which derives from the Old English bearn. It is found in Beowulf, written in 529, and the most recent citation in the OED is from History of the Norman Conquests, by E.A. Freeman:  “Harthacnut too..was at least a kingly bairn.” I get a sense that Freeman used it in 1867 because even then, it seemed like an antique word.

When one searches for it in a contemporary context, most of the hits refer to the expression “Jock Tamson’s bairns,” about which Wikipedia has some interesting things to say:

“We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns” is Lowland Scots and Northumbrian English for we’re all John Thomson’s children, It is a popular saying in Scotland and the far north of England, and is known in other parts of the world. Nowadays, the phrase is often used to mean “we’re all the same under the skin”.

It has been suggested as a euphemism for God, so the saying could mean “we are all God’s children”. The expression “We’re a’ the bairns o’ Adam”, conveys exactly the same meaning, see Freedom Come-All-Ye a song written by Hamish Henderson. Scottish Gaelic also has the shorter saying “Clann MhicTamhais” (Thomson/MacTavish’s children/clan). This is a common egalitarian sentiment in Scottish national identity, also evident in the popularity of the Robert Burns song A Man’s A Man for A’ That.

Although Jock Tamson’s Bairns is used as a personification of the Scots nation, it is also used to refer to the human race in general.

In the United States, bairn is very much a novelty item, used for variety or comic effect or elegant variation (both apply in the Philadelphia Inquirer item). The most recent use by a New York Times writer came in 2006, in a Natalie Angier column about mothers (in the animal kingdom) who eat their young or allow them to die:

In other cases, mothers turn infanticidal because they are born optimists, ever tuned to the sunny expectation that good times lie ahead. Each year they breed for a banquet, producing a maximum of begging bairns as the season starts; and when there is plenty of food, they will provision every young.

By the way, there may have been another word that puzzled you in the Inquirer item. Thesp was originated by the trade-newspaper Variety; it’s show-biz slang for actor.

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21 responses to ““Bairn”

  1. I grew up in the north east of England in the fifties and sixties, and “bairn” was common usage there.

  2. “Bairns” is more a Northern English/Scottish word – although most Brits would recognise it. My boss was a Geordie (from Newcastle upon Tyne) and it was his word of choice for “child”.
    Regarding “Thesp”, it’s just an abbreviation of “Thespian” which I am sure people comes from the Ancient Greek. Certainly in Britain, it’s usage tends to be in a slightly mocking sense, for actors who are somewhat precious.

  3. But then, JLC, “thespian” in full also has a slightly mocking sense in British English, doesn’t it? For a nation that turns out distinguished actors by the skip full we don’t seem very respectful of the poor dears, do we?

  4. I always loved the more-than-slightly-mocking term “luvvies,” and have been waiting for it to show up in the U.S.

  5. I, too, grew up in the north-east of England in the 50s & 60s, and bairn was common.

    “The Bairn”, by the way, is always the youngest child in the family (or extended family), so that my 16-yr old daughter remains, to her disgust, the bairn of the family.

    “Weans”, as in “wee ones”, is a west of Scotland equivalent.

    Related phrase: “bits of bairns”, as in: “they’re only bits of bairns”, as might be used if children were being harshly or unfairly treated.

  6. If anyone has read Robbie Burns or has a wink of Scots blood, or lived up north, then bairn is a babe…I’m a southerner and it was common affectionate lingo to refer to someone’s new babe as a “wee bairn”. I’d not bring it in as a Britishism, it’s just “out there” for anyone as wants. As for Luvvie, don’t find a bit of mock in that. Up north everyone’s a “luv” and it’s heartwarming.as in the bairn just bord to Will n Kate. Has “petal” crossed yet? And I thought bits of bairs meant they were truly “wee” as in tiny.

  7. Irvine Welsh’s book of Trainspotting[1] makes extensive use of “bairn”, as I recall.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trainspotting_(novel)

  8. A Britishism? Not general but still current in NE and Scotland.

  9. In response to Liz Read:

    I suspect that using “wee bairn” in an affectionate way was, nevertheless, also an affectation, in the sense that the user would know that it was a Scottish usage.

    “Luv” or “Love” is common across Yorks/Lancs, but other areas have their own, such as “Ducks” or “Me ducks” in Leicester. “Pet” is, I think, pretty restricted to the North-East, “Petal” being an elaboration. In my Grandmothers’ day, again in the North-East, it was “Hinney”, but this has pretty much died out. In parts of Scotland, “Hen” is used, probably also out of the local pronunciation of honey. Dear, dearie, darling. are all in use.

    I remember seeing maps of these regional usages once.

    • I remember “hinney”, presumably a dialect pronunciation of honey. Although brought up in the north-east, I was born in London and always felt myself a bit of an outsider in the matters of the local dialect. (I was greatly amused by Scott Dobson’s Larn Yersel Geordie books in the sixties.)

      “Pet” confused my father when he first moved to the north. He said for ages he thought there were a lot of people called Pat, which is how he heard it.

    • And, in the South-West, the rather disturbing (to an incomer) “My Lover”, emphasised with that rhotic R.

    • Oo! I’d forgotten “hinney”! Petal I love, my cousins in the south use it a lot. Southerners tend to “affect” dialect – I definitely do with intent that affectionate phrases are MORE fond. Of course I’m not living ‘there” anymore so everyone thinks I’m speaking Brit without catching the subtlety. Rats.

    • And “Duck”, rather than “Ducks”, in South Derbyshire -“eyup, me duck” being a standard greeting when I was growing up there.

  10. Just to clarify: the “Luvvie” mentioned by Ben is *not* derived from the “Luv” as used generally across the UK, but a specifically mocking term used for certain class of actor – usually the more affected types. The satirical magazine “Private Eye” (essential reading for any Anglophiles, I would suggest) has a regular column called “Luvvies” which captures little gems from the world of stage http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luvvies#Luvvies

  11. There was a ‘bairn’ reference slipped into the recent film ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’, which is set in the present day. One of the main characters is Scottish (played by Ewan McGregor, who is Scottish).

  12. Richard Gadsden

    Bairn is typical in the NE and in Scotland. I was raised to be told it was the word used by the Angles rather than the Danes (Yorkshire/Lancashire, Midlands) or the Saxons (South), and that other dialect divisions had this same history.

    As far as I can tell, there’s pretty much zero evidence of that, but you’d only hear “bairn” in the rest of England when impersonating a Scot or a Geordie, or in similar contexts to the American useage.

    • Not sure about that. “Barn” is the modern Danish word for “child”. Indeed, I understand a Dane might refer to all the little children as “alle de lille børn” which almost sounds like Geordie. (Not a Danish speaker, btw, just repeating something I heard.)

  13. Quantum Mechanic

    And of course “bairn” has long been a known word in the US nerd community courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery Scott and his efforts to keep his “wee bairns” working to propel the USS Enterprise at warp speed…

  14. Yes, Scottish and NE England usage, but remember this is Lowland Scots, with its roots in North Germanic languages; distinct and entirely different from Highland Scots, a Gaelic language. I’d be interested to know if “bairn” isn’t in common usage in the N of Scotland, where the heritage is Gaelic and where it is still spoken.

  15. I’ve always assumed that ‘bairn’ comes from Viking roots. The word for ‘child’ in Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic is ‘barn’.

  16. Rosalind Mitchell

    A lot of Lowland and East Coast Scots and the dialects of NE England are heavily influenced by Scandinavian languages. It was the part of the island largely settled by Scandinavians (‘Viking’ was more of a job than an ethnicity!). Of course, after the Conquest William the Bastard’s forces massacred the people of these areas but we don’t get taught about the Harrying of the North at school (at least I wasn’t) because the Conquest was a Good Thing. Domesday Book and all that.

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