Fig. 1
Bonny baby
Last time I maintained that one gets fewer compliments in the UK than in the US. But if you're wanting more compliments in the UK (or anywhere, probably), I have a simple solution. Have a baby.

Not only will you get compliments (well, your baby will, but you're the one who will be expected to reply), they'll probably involve adjectives other than nice and good. And sometimes, they'll even involve BrE-specific adjectives, as happened tonight. Grover and I were watching cars in front of our house this evening, when a sixty-ish man (unknown to us) walked by and said, "Bonny baby!"

He sounded like a local southeastern man (from what one could tell from two words), but bonny is a word that conjures up Scotland. Here's what the OED says:

1. Pleasing to the sight, comely, beautiful, expressing homely beauty. Now in common use only in Scotland and north or midland counties of England; occasionally employed, with local or lyrical effect, by English writers, but not a word of ordinary English prose.

So, not only do babies elicit compliments, they elicit lyricism! (Or at least particularly gorgeous babies like Grover do.)


  1. Maybe it's a specifically baby thing. In one PG Wodehouse novel set in the south of England ("Uncle Dynamite"), the plot partly hinges on a "bonny babies" competition which several characters are eager to avoid judging (due to the competitive nature of the entrants' managers). I think a bonny babies competition is mentioned in at least one other Wodehouse story too. Maybe your 60-year old friend remembers a time when these events still took place? (Maybe they still do.)

  2. Blyth and bonny indeed.

    Am/E speakers tend to specify gender as a hard rule. Hard on my mom who, after two boys, finally had a daughter - dressed her in pink frilly bonnets, and (since I had no hair) was told what a good baby boy she had.

  3. I first visited the US on a teaching exchange when my son was six months old (had he been born a few days later he would have been classified as too young to fly). Now he is a healthy 16year old taking his exams and getting into all sorts of scrapes - back then he was one of the cutest blonde haired blue eyed babies you have ever seen. :) (See who said we can't do superlatives when we mean them)

    It seemed like every five minutes or so, someone came up to us to tell us what a beautiful baby we had. Following on from the last post - we accepted them all graciously and with a smile. However, after the fifteenth or twentieth time, it did start to wear a bit thin.

  4. Sorry - After the Fifteenth or twentieth time in the same afternoon while we were trying to explore New York, it started to wear a bit thin.

  5. Anon, yes, 'bonny baby' is a somewhat known phrase.

    Zhoen, you may enjoy my fellow linguist-American-in-the-UK blogger's discussion of reference to babies/children as 'it' in the UK.

  6. I agree with PG Wodehouse that a Bonny Baby competition is a potential minefield - while Grover is absolutely gorgeous and the perfect size and shape, 'bonny' 40 or 50 years ago could be translated as 'cute but/and chubby' and many babies in old pictures would seem overweight to us today.
    A Scottish passer-by might have congratulated you on your 'bonny wee gairl' and addressed her as 'lambie-pie' - in that adorable strawberry hat, she definitely couldn't be a 'wee man'.

  7. OK,not language at all, but my favorite compliment to my baby was when her pediatrician came in to the exam room, gazed at her for a moment, and said to me confidingly, "Of course, her real problem is that she's so ugly!"

    Cracked me up.

    Grover is bonny. I wonder if the alliteration of the B and the--oh, shoot, what's that other word, for vowels--of the "y" ending makes that phrase particularly appealing.

    There's a folk song, a contest, and umpty-hundred baby-product companies w/ that phrase.

  8. I think Miss Manners says the only acceptable thing to say about a friend's new baby is that it is beautiful.

    My grandfather on the other hand said that all babies look like Winston Churchill.

  9. For us AmE speakers, the only exposure most of us have to "bonny" (aside from the female first name "Bonnie") is in the words of the "Skye Boat Song".

    This is a great song to teach to a toddler, because they tend to hear "bonny" as "bunny" and "bairn" as "bear", and imagine a boat of sailor rabbits carrying a bear across the sea to become king.

  10. My favourite usage of the word bonny is in the old rhyme:

    Monday's child is fair of face,
    Tuesday's child is full of grace,
    Wednesday's child is full of woe,
    Thursday's child has far to go,
    Friday's child is loving and giving,
    Saturday's child works hard for a living,
    and the child that is born on the Sabbath day is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

  11. Somewhere in Stephen Potter (I think) is the observation that the only safe comment to make when shown a baby is "Now THAT'S what I call a baby!".

  12. As a Scot, the only time (if at all) I'd use 'bonny' would be to describe an animal, such as a bonny dog, or as mentioned in songs, (Loch Lomond springs to mind). I'd never use it of a person, baby or otherwise.

  13. As a native of NE England, I use "bonny lad" as a vocative towards my 4-year-old son. But then we north-easterners use "canny" with a much more positive meaning than is found in other British varieties (i.e. it's not about being tight with your money or deviously clever).

  14. I once had a mother-in-law, a native of North-East Derbyshire, who used "bonny" quite freely in her descriptions of people, which to begin with I understood as positive and complimentary. It was only after many misunderstandings that I came eventually to realize that she was using it all along as a euphemism for "alarmingly overweight", which, trust me, was saying something coming from her... :)

    "Englishman in New York" Andy

  15. I'm not familiar with the "skye boat song" but I'll look it up.

    I liked the name Bonnie for a girl baby when I was considering baby names. We had to reject it however because her surname would have been Roberts and Bonnie Roberts seemed to too easily morph into Bunnie Rabbits. (Plus, it was a non-issue as we had a boy - and now we have two boys.)

  16. Uh, bunny rabbits, rather.

  17. "Bonny" is pretty commonly used in my part of the UK (Lancashire/Greater Manchester).

    I hear it most used to describe girls, as in "she's a bonny lass" or "she were proper bonny".

    Certainly among broader speakers, it is far more common than pretty. I notice it is just as much used by the young as by the old.

  18. Massachusetts age 25-

    I was not familiar with "The Skye Boat Song". so I looked it up.

    It supposedly refers to the same events as another song of which I was aware. "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean". That song was probably my first exposure to bonny.

    Another bonny most Americans probably know is Bonnie and Clyde.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)