Editors of the Dictionaries of the Scots Language
are kindly supplying us with a Scots word of the month. This month, the word is:
a small quantity; small
'Wee' is so familiar that we might take it for granted, but it has an interesting history. It comes from an Old English word meaning a weight or amount and appears with the meaning 'child' in the Northern Middle English Cursor Mundi (a1300) as 'wei'.
It then disappears from English to resurface in early literary Scots in the phrase 'a little wei' meaning a short space of time, a little bit, or a small quantity. So, in John Barbour's Legend of the Saints
(1380): 'The kinge tuk than a lytil we Of the fresche blude, & vet (wet) his ee'.
Modern evidence for the noun includes a rhyme by Charlie Gillen in the Belfast Newsletter
(2002): 'The weans sez, get a computer da, So we can gw'on the net. Sez I ye'll hae tae wait a wee, They micht get cheaper yet'.
The adjective first appears the mid-15th century in Richard Holland's The Book of the Howlat
to describe a tiny bird: 'The litill we wran'. It appeared rarely in English thereafter, notably in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor
, and even in Scots was not really common as an adjective until the early 18th century.
It has since produced many intriguing combinations such as 'wee ane', which later morphed into 'wean'. A 'wee coat' is an under-petticoat. A 'wee hauf' is a nip of spirits, after drinking which, you might visit the 'wee hoose'.
The Laird of Logan
(1868) describes 'To gie Wee Jock' as a 'cant term, denoting a mixture of intoxicating liquors administered to an individual without his knowledge. A trick well understood in Paisley'.
A wee man might be an orraman or an affectionate expression for a boy, but 'The Wee Man' is the devil. A 'wee pawn' is an unlicensed pawn‐broker, often engaged in illicit dealings.
In fact, it is such a useful wee word that English has now reintroduced it.
Scots Word of the Month is written by editors of the Dictionaries of the Scots Language. You can sponsor a word from this national archive as a special gift for a loved one or friend. More information about word sponsorship is here.