Bairn, a family designator
Words about words
M. Michael Brady
The word bairn comes from the Old Norse barn, principally meaning “child, a son or daughter.” Through the years, it has been spelled in various ways. In the 11th century the word, then spelled bearn, appeared around the year 1000 in the Anglo Saxon Gospel according to St. Matthew: “Ðæt ᵹe sín eowres Fæder bearn.” Then in 1063 it appeared in Beowulf, the Old English epic poem: “Beowulf maþelode, bearn Ecᵹþéowes.”
But it was the original Old Norse barn that proved most resilient with time; it was used by Shakespeare and survived in the northern English dialect and in modern Norwegian. The Scottish form bairn appeared sporadically in literary English from the early 18th century on. In Victorian England, poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in Northern Farmer that “Bessy Marris’s barne! tha knaws she laäid it to meä.”
Today, bairn is seldom used in American English, save for literary polemic on Britishisms, as invaders from the other side of the Atlantic. But it’s a contemporary word in Northumbrian English, both alone and in combined forms, such as bairn-like (“child-like”) and bairn’s-play (“child’s play”).
In Scotland, bairn is part of everyday lingo, as in the phrase “Jock Tamson’s bairns.” The origin of the phrase is unknown. But it’s culturally commonplace and hence the theme of a copper tablet affixed to a wall opposite Duddingston Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to the Dictionary of the Scot’s Language (see further reading), it’s an expression of mutual good fellowship. The first reference to it is from 1847, and the definitions of the words Jock and Tamson are:
• Jock: “A generic term for a man, a male person.” and Jock Tamson’s bairns: “the human race, common humanity; also, with less universal force, a group of people united by a common sentiment, interest or purpose.”
• Tamson: “a Scottish form of the surname Thomson. In phrases, Tamson stands for the ordinary representative man in the street: Jock Tamson’s bairns, common humanity.”
Further reading: Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL), Glasgow, Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd., website supported by the University of Glasgow at https://dsl.ac.uk.
M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.
This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.