Useful Scots word: wean

A couple of weans <em>Picture: William Miller, 1796–1882</em>
A couple of weans Picture: William Miller, 1796–1882
By Betty Kirkpatrick

The Edinburgh Fringe is underway and people are flocking from all over the world to see the multifarious events. They even come from Glasgow and some of them bring their weans.

Wean is a Scots word for child. It now tends to be associated mainly with the west of Scotland, although it was formerly more widespread. From the look of the word you might assume that it has something to do with the English verb to wean, as this has obvious connections with children. Not so.

The Scots word does not share a pronunciation with the English verb (ween). Instead, it is pronounced to rhyme with gain (or pain, if you don’t like children). Wean is a result of the running together of two other Scots words – wee and ane.

Ane, also pronounced to rhyme with gain, is the equivalent of the pronoun one, and wee needs no explanation. It is one of our most successful words in that it has spread its influence throughout the English-speaking world. Wee, meaning small or tiny (yes I know I said it needed no explanation), is rather a charming, cosy word. What a pity the word has become a verb with such a close connection with urination, and it is no longer just the weans who use it in that way either.

Wee first came into Scots in the late-14th century as a noun in the phrase a lytil wee meaning “a small distance”. Derived from the Old English waeg, a weight, wee did not make an appearance as an adjective until the middle of the 15th century.

Wee ane is not always shortened to wean. In some parts of Scotland it retains its status as two words and is pronounced accordingly. Sometimes wee ane becomes wee yin, yin being also used as a Scots equivalent of the pronoun one.

Like child, wean can be used to refer to a small young person, aged somewhere in the halcyon time between babyhood and adolescence. It can also refer to a relationship to a parent and be used to mean offspring.

Formerly weans were sometimes referred to as laddie (boy) weans and lassie (girl) weans, but this practice seems to have died out. Perhaps too many mistakes were being made by well-meaning adults and certainly, at a quick glance, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the sexes in the first couple of years of life. Sometimes the difficulty last longer. Fortunately, grandweans or granweans seem to be alive and kicking.

So if weans are now mostly restricted to the west, what are they called in the east and other parts of Scotland? They are called bairns. Well, they are by some people. Mostly they go under the universal designation, kids.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century 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.

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