Word of the Day: bonnie

Word of the Day: bonnie


When I was a boy I had a hard time distinguishing the words in songs. So this is how I heard the old sea-chanty:


My body lies over the ocean,
My body lies over the sea,
My body lies over the ocean,
O bring back my body to me!

What did I know about girls, back then? Well, of course the word I was mishearing is bonnie, as in a bonnie lass.

Most people would say that bonnie is a Scottish word, as in Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart heir to the English throne, who led a failed uprising against the German Hanoverians who were the royalty then in England, jawohl! That’s correct, but misleading. It’s a Scots English word; it’s a part of the English dialect spoken up in the highlands. It isn’t Gaelic at all.
More than that, it’s an English word that comes to us not from the Germanic stock, and certainly not from the nearby Vikings, but from France. Yes, it’s French. A good woman in French is bonne: and back when French speakers actually pronounced their letters, you could really hear that vowel at the end of the word. Hence: bonnie.


Of course, bonne means good, not beautiful; but the old French speakers must have intuited a relationship between goodness and beauty, at the very least because it is good to be beautiful, and because there is a profound beauty in goodness. I used to believe that ancient Greek was unusual in that regard, as one adjective, kalos, meant both good and beautiful, so that the Greeks could hardly conceive of goodness without implying beauty. But now I’m beginning to think that English is the odd language out. In Italian, all kinds of good things – a fine kick in soccer, a generous contribution to the church, even the mess that Stan Laurel gets Oliver Hardy into – are called bello, beautiful; in Spanish, the pretty girl is bonita, from the word for good; and in Welsh, if you wish blessings upon someone, you wish what is gwyn: white, fair. Even the gruff Germans thank someone beautifully, with splendor: danke schoen.


So English, despite its wealth of words, is lacking here. We can call a deed handsome, as when someone donates a large sum of money to a charity anonymously, but that usage too is growing quaint. Perhaps it’s the fault of our humdrum utilitarian suppositions about life. It’s telling, that perfectly hideous personalities like Lady Gaga, or the ubiquitous harlot Kim of the Armenian surname, can be featured in women’s magazines for their “beauty.” Snakes can be bonnie, but only because they are the snakes they were meant to be. Human snakes, not so.

By the way, there’s a neighborhood in London known for a local church, Sainte Marie-la-bonne, in French. By the time of Shakespeare, those words in the name had gotten scrunched together: Marleybone. Not too bonnie, maybe, but delightful anyhow.

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