In college, a literature professor related that a poet from the British Isles, as a young child, uttered the words (as best as I can remember)

"What ails the wee bairn?"

upon hearing an infant crying ("Bairn" is a Nordic word for "child").

The odd part is that this poet was, at the time, maybe 3-4 years old, and these were the first words he was ever heard to utter.

His parents had assumed he was mute for some medical reason, and when they asked him why he had never spoken before he said "I never had anything to say" (or words to that effect).

Any idea who this poet was?

  • 3
    I think "bairn" is a Scottish word for "child", which would fit with "wee". Sep 28 '20 at 23:28
  • Yep, it was probably "bairn". (Still derives from the Nordic, though.)
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 29 '20 at 0:26
  • “Wee bairn” is certainly Scots for small child but that does not help me help you. All I can say is that I have previously read this tale about somebody significant but cannot remember who it is!
    – Anton
    Sep 29 '20 at 7:26
  • "Bairn" isn't just Scottish, it's found quite widely in Northern and Midland England. Because of the old country accent there used to be a joke in Lincolnshire that said that, as far as people from remote villages were concerned, 'bairns were for keeping hay in and sex were for potatoes' since the word 'barn' had a dipthong in it that made it sound like 'bairn' and 'sack' had a vowel sound that made it sound like 'seck'. If 'bairn' hadn't been a Lincolnshire word for child the joke wouldn't have been funny.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 29 '20 at 8:08
  • 1
    I would think he would show up in a list of famous late talkers, but such a search (and Einstein syndrome) also has me stumped.
    – livresque
    Sep 30 '20 at 1:02

Contemporary fabulists (1997, 2010, 2012, 2019) have these as the famous first words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, at the age of 4 (or thereabouts):

What ails thee, Jock?

In 1933, the same words are ascribed to Thomas Carlyle at the age of eleven months by Lovisa C. Wagoner in The Development of Learning in Young Children.

The current favorite appears to be Macaulay, perhaps because of the incredulity inspired by any child speaking so coherently at eleven months. However, Wagoner at least provided sources, which eventually enabled me to trace the story back to a slightly different version.

In the 1928 Infancy and Human Growth, Arnold Gesell reports this:

Thomas Carlyle, writer, had not spoken a word until eleven months, when hearing a child cry he said, "What ails thee, Jock?"

Gesell attributes the story to biographical data "of unequal reliability" given in the 1926 Genetic Studies Of Genius Volume II: The Early Mental Traits Of Three Hundred Geniuses by Catharine Morris Cox, where the story is told with a slight but in this context significant difference:

It is reported that Carlyle had not spoken a word until, at the age of eleven months, hearing a child cry, he amazed the household by asking: "What ails wee Jock?" [emphasis added]

Cox, for her part, lifted the tale almost verbatim from the 1887 Life of Thomas Carlyle by Richard Garnett, wherein it is prefaced by "Few anecdotes are recorded of Carlyle's infancy."

My speculation is of course merely speculation, but I find it understandable that a literature professor might both embellish and alter the story, replacing "Jock" with "bairn" to give it a more Scottish flavor and forestall any irrelevant associations the students might concoct from "Jock".

In the contemporary accounts I looked at, Macaulay is misspelled as "Macauley", which suggests that story came from a source that likewise misspelled the name. Also noteworthy is that the first name of both Carlyle and Macaulay is Thomas. I'm sure these observations suggest profound truths about the etiology and development of apocryphal stories.

Both Macaulay and Carlyle wrote poetry, Macaulay more than Carlyle, but neither is now known principally for their verse.


The odd part is that this poet was, at the time, maybe 3-4 years old, and these were the first words he was ever heard to utter.

This is a pretty old joke. There's some possibility that it is originally German

The following is from Reddit - QI (QI is a TV program that deals in tracing obscure facts.)

A British couple decided to adopt a German baby. They raised him for years, however they began to get worried because he never spoke, and they believed that he was mentally handicapped, going as far as to take him to therapy, which was fruitless. Then, when the child was 8 years old, he had a Strudle, and said "It is a little tepid."

His parents, of course shocked that he was suddenly speaking, asked: "Wolfgang, why have you never spoken before?", to which the child replied: "Up until now, everything had been satisfactory."

Interestingly, I heard the same joke on "Was it something I said?", being attributed to Winston Churchill as a genuine quote, saying the first words he ever spoke were "this soup is too warm", and replying to his parents asking why he had never spoken before with "up until now everything had been satisfactory". [...]

6 years ago

I had heard the same thing about Einstein. I guess it's one of those fake "facts" that gets thrown around from time to time.

And when I read it, I seemed to remember it being attributed to George Bernard Shaw whose first words, c. aged 5, were alleged to be "The weather is rather inclement."


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.