In a word: bairn

November 11, 2013|By John McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


When my twins, Alice and John Paul, were young, I habitually referred to them as "the wee bairns." 

Bairn (pronounced "bern") is a very old word in English. In one of his posts at Not One-off Britishisms, Ben Yagoda says that it "derives from the Old English bearn. It is found in Beowulf, written in 529." The word is etymologically related to the verb bear, as in "to bear children." It survives today mainly in northern England and Scotland. 

When it crosses the water, it appears in American English, Mr. Yagoda says, much like other British imports, as "very much a novelty item, used for variety or comic effect or elegant variation." 

The novelty can be compounded, as in my case, with affection. It's too good a word to leave to the Brits alone. 

Example: From "As If Nature Talked Back to Me," an essay on motherhood by Ange Mlinko published in Poetry: "Your social self is a wraith in memory while your bodily self mucks about with a bairn in an afterlife quarantined to the physical."

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