Useful Scots word: bidie-in

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Holding handsI was reading an article about the rights of cohabitees the other day and could not help thinking what a clumsy, clinical and unattractive word cohabitee is. Not so the Scots word bidie-in which means much the same as cohabitee.

What is a cohabitee or a bidie-in? They both refer to someone who is living with someone in a sexual relationship but who is not married to that person.

Bidie-in comes from the north-east of Scotland and was more or less restricted to that area for a long time, but things changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bidie-in unexpectedly gained a degree of prominence not only in Scotland, but also in the rest of Britain.

At that time more and more people were choosing to live together, rather than get married. Some language experts became obsessed with finding a word to describe the person with whom someone was living in an unmarried state.

Lover was considered to be too racy and partner was originally set aside because of its associations with business. Some strange alternatives were put forward. One of these was significant other which went on to mean a person of importance or influence in someone’s life. The strangest was POSSLQ, short for persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters. I kid you not, this was seriously considered. Fortunately it did not last.

Bidie-in popped up in the media coverage as a possible contender. It failed to win universal support, perhaps because it sounds too homely and cosy for sophisticated society. The word comes from the verb bide meaning either to stay somewhere temporarily or to live permanently in a place, to reside. It is closely related to the word abide, both having their roots in Old English

What happened to bidie-in? After its brief spell of fame it returned to relative obscurity. More Scots from a wider area used it than before, but it faded from the UK scene. It, like the other suggested words, lost out to partner. Apparently its business connections did not matter after all. No surprise there, then.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

  • Possil Q would be about right.

    Q Whit dae ye call a Possil wumman wi’ a white Shell suit?

    A The bride.

  • Wee Willie Bee

    Very funny Donald. Bidie-in conveys the situation perfectly, and leaves “partner” for those of same sex living together.

  • I’ve heard “co-vivant” used too. It sounds joyfull, friendly and positive and perhaps a little more acceptable in mainland Europe, although I first came across this in Canada. It is also, like Bidie-in, open to any couple living together regardless of gender.

    • Flojo

      Deirdre, well done on thinking “co-viant” “sounds joyful”?

  • Anither Rab

    A can mind whan the offeicial (English) title in Scotland for a bidie-in wis “Common-law wife” or “Common-law husband” particlar whan there wis bairns. A aye wunner whit wey oor maisters stopped yaisin it. The common law hisnae chynged.

    • Wee Willie Bee

      Hi, Another Rab
      Afraid the law on marriage by habit and repute was changed, first in 1939 when two form of marriage were abolished. Secondly it was again changed in 2006 as the following extract from Wikipedia explains.

      “In 2006 “marriage by cohabitation with habit and repute” was also abolished in the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006. Until that act had come into force, Scotland remained the only European jurisdiction never to have totally abolished the old-style common-law marriage. For this law to apply, the minimum time the couple have lived together continuously had to exceed 20 days.”

      Apparently Scots Law does not recognise a status of ‘common law marriage’. However almost 60% of the population believe that such a thing still exists, as it once did.

      A bit boring perhaps, but thought you might be interested.

      • Flojo

        It exists for me and my beloved cohabitee of more than 30 years our 2 children and 4 grandchildren.

        I think that apparently Scots Law does recognise the status of common law couples.

        It makes common-sense.

        • J Brown

          There is no such thing as “common law” marriage in this country. There were a few irregular forms of marriage recognised until fairly recent times including “hand fasting”. I think the only one remaining one is “marriage by co-habitation and habit and repute”. In other words, a couple who have lived together for a significant length of time and acted as, and were believed to be, man and wife, could be recognised by a court as legally married.

          The “common law” thing is just another piece of anglicisation.

          • Wee Willie Bee

            See my comment above, J Brown,march 6th, 8.06pm. You were correct right up to 2006 when “marriage by co-habitation and habit and repute” was dumped in Scotland. Not many people know that! Wikipedia give chapter and verse on the subject.

  • Dave Hewitt

    There’s also the associated problem of how to describe the unmarried version of a brother- or sister-in-law. Sometime around 1990 I heard my pal Calum Hind describe his sister’s bidie-in as his “boyfriend-in-law” – which was rather nice, and I’ve used it ever since.

  • Flojo

    “Kip’n up” is also still used here in Dundee, normally said together almost as one word just to underline the fact.

    “Bidie in, kip’n up”

    • Flojo

      “Kippy-up” is the word, apologies

      “Bidie-in, kippy up”

  • Ah.. bidie-in illustrated here along with other Scottish words. As for the word falling out of use I don’t think so. It was in common use in my circle of friends. Up until we all became legally joined.

  • David Pee

    > The strangest was POSSLQ, short for persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters.

    It gets a lot stranger than that, if you stray into the realm of administrative law.

    In social security legislation (which has a long history of bothering about who is biding with who, and why) we have:


    (uttered as if it were a over-long Welsh placename)

    which denotes a same-sex couple – who are not registered civil partners – but are nonetheless:

    “living together as husband and wife were they instead two people of the opposite sex”.

    A nice conterfactual that gives rise to lots of dispute. Fortunately, the burden of proof of LTAHAWWTITPOTOS-ness is on the Powers That Be.

  • Living under the brush was a universal term, dating back to a ceremony of stepping over a brush. Not sure if it was just a Scottish custom.

    “Styin’ wi’ his fancy wumman” is term that seems to have gone out of use and was mostly used by females that I can remember.

  • Wee Willie Bee

    In mentioning the abolishing of marriage by habit and repute which came into effect in 2007 I was remiss in failing to say that those already married by that provision were not affected. That meant they remained married. It was after that date that you could not be married that way. Sorry I failed to mention that.
    This brought Scots law into line with English law.
    Whether it might have been better the other way round is a matter for debate.

  • John J

    Bidie-in was usually the term for a woman who lived with a man.
    Was there a male equivalent ?