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Vocabulary in A Red, Red Rose

In 1794, when “A Red, Red Rose” was written, English spelling was not standardized in the way it is today, and so different writers spelled the same word in different ways. However, it seems that Burns intentionally chose some less-common spellings of words in this poem, such as “luve” instead of “love.” These departures from conventional English spelling are in keeping with the use of the Scots dialect in terms like “gang,” “weel,” and “bonnie lass.” These choices make the poem come off as distinctly Scottish, rather than as an English poem written by someone who happened to be from Scotland.

Vocabulary Examples in A Red, Red Rose:

A Red, Red Rose

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"And I will come again, my Luve,   Tho’ it were ten thousand mile!..."   (A Red, Red Rose)

“Tho’” here is an abbreviated form of “though.” The last two lines of the stanza mean: I will come back to you, even if there are ten thousand miles between us. As with many other passages of the poem, these lines can be read in one of two ways. Either the speaker’s hyperbolic declaration is an earnest, if overstated, profession of commitment, or it serves as an ironic skewering of sentimental expressions of devotion, using hyperbole to ridicule that poetic convention.

" And fare thee weel, awhile!..."   (A Red, Red Rose)

The addition of “awhile” to this line means that the speaker hopes—or wants his beloved to believe that he hopes—that he won’t be gone for too long. It means: “Goodbye, for a short while.”

"fare thee weel..."   (A Red, Red Rose)

In the Scottish dialect, “weel” means “well,” so this line means “fare thee well.” The speaker is saying goodbye to his beloved. If the poem is a genuine expression of love, then it seems the speaker has been forced to leave his beloved by some unnamed circumstances, and this “farewell” is a melancholy one. If the speaker has been disingenuous from the start, this last stanza is an announcement that, as predicted, the feeling of love has passed. Too ashamed to admit this, the speaker leaves by saying that he’ll return no matter what. But, with ten thousand miles of separation, really he won’t be back.

"Till a’ the seas gang dry...."   (A Red, Red Rose)

This line also contains three archaisms. “Till” is a shortened form of “until.” “A’” is an abbreviated form of “all.” In the Scottish dialect, “gang” was once a way of saying “go” or “walk,” though in this context it means the former. So a translation of the line into contemporary English would read: “Until all the seas go dry.”

"thee..."   (A Red, Red Rose)

Like “thou,” “thee” is an archaic second-person singular pronoun, but “thee” is used as the object of the sentence. In the line “So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,” “thou” is the subject. But in “And I will luve thee still,” “thee” is the object of the verb, and “I” is the subject.

"As fair art thou, my bonnie lass..."   (A Red, Red Rose)

This line contains four archaisms—words or phrases no longer used in contemporary English, or not in the same way. The adjective “fair” here means lovely or pretty. “Art” in this context means “are.” The second-person singular pronoun “thou” was once used as a less formal alternative to “you,” which contemporary speakers would say in this context. And “bonnie lass” was a phrase from the Scottish dialect used as a term of endearment to describe a pretty young woman. So a translation of this line into contemporary English might read: “As lovely are you, my pretty girl.”

"play’d..."   (A Red, Red Rose)

Historically, “played” would be pronounced in two syllables, though modern speakers tend to say it in one. Because the “-ed” ending of words used to be pronounced as a separate syllable, poets would sometimes replace the “e” with an apostrophe—“play’d” instead of “played”—to indicate that the word should be collapsed into one syllable. The contraction of the “-ed” ending helps the poet fit words into the meter at hand.

"my Luve’s..."   (A Red, Red Rose)

In the past, English spelling wasn’t standardized in the way it is today, and “love” could sometimes be spelled “luve.” However, by 1794 this spelling was relatively uncommon. It seems Burns intentionally used this unconventional spelling because it was in keeping with the foreign terms and usages that the Scottish dialect introduced, such as “gang,” “weel,” and “bonnie lass.” “My luve,” in this first stanza, is a term of endearment: it refers to the person he loves, not the feeling.

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