Scots Word of the Season: ‘Wean’

wean n. a child, especially a young one

Scots has a number of words for children and young people, the most well-known being bairn and wean. While bairn is traditionally associated with dialects of the north and east of Scotland, wean is more often found in the south and west, and both terms occasionally appear in northern English dialects, reminding us of the fluidity of linguistic ‘boundaries’. Wean is a good example of an entirely Scots compound, deriving from wee ain ‘little one’, unlike the term bairn, which was inherited from Old English bearn, and reinforced by Old Norse barn.

Wean therefore reminds us that Scots, as a living language, can generate new vocabulary from its existing word-stock and does not always borrow new terms from other sources. Early uses of the word, including the following example from Alan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd (1725) evidence this shift from two words to one: “Troth, my Niece is a right dainty we’an”.

A young man might also be described as a chiel or chield, as in Robert Burns’ description of his friend Francis Grose, the noted antiquarian: “Hear , Land o’ Cakes, and brither Scots, Frae Maidenkirk to Johnie Groat’s, If there’s a hole in a’ your coats, I rede (advise) you tent (pay attention to) it: A chield’s amang you takin notes, And faith he’ll prent it”. The two men were good friends and Burns’ epic poem Tam o’Shanter was created to complement the illustration of Alloway’s Auld Haunted Kirk in Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland (1791).

Talented or promising weans and bairns are often described as lads and lasses o pairts, the most famous lad o’ pairts being our aforementioned bard. This popular expression also crops up in non-Scottish English, and is of relatively recent invention. It derives from a section title in Ian Maclaren’s couthy tale of pastoral life, Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (1894), hailed as one of the first of the so-called Kailyard school of literary works that idealised rural Scotland.

A quick browse through the multi-volume Dictionary of the Scots Language at reveals more unusual terms like ungadrengen ‘a young man’, used in the taboo language of Shetland fishermen until the early 20th century. Dangerous occupations like fishing and mining often generate elaborate superstitions, and this term, deriving from a Norwegian dialectal phrase unge drengen ‘young men’, was used to minimise bad luck when discussing the topic on board ship—similarly, a minister was a black coat and a mouse was an umik.

Wean is extremely commonplace in Glasgow and is often uttered with smeddum by Members of the Scottish Parliament keen to show their affinity with the western vox populi. Illustrating examples of everyday Glasgow vernacular to the uninitiated in an April 2009 article, The Scotsman newspaper employed such phrases as “Wharlla stick ma wean’s buggie?” The article celebrated the achievements of local bus driver James Lillis, who won an award for learning Polish so that he could translate Glaswegian more effectively for Polish immigrants working in the industry. While this may raise a smile, it also makes an interesting and subtle point about translation into Scots, which should inspire lads and lasses o’ pairts of all ages.

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Maggie Scott

Maggie Scott is Lecturer in English Language and Literature at the University of Salford. She is the author of the Scots Word of the Season regular column in The Bottle Imp.

More articles by Maggie Scott

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