Borne Of vs. Born Of

Here’s an interesting word-choice conundrum I came across in my copy editing a while back: “A completely retooled Buick borne of German design.”

“Borne,” in my mind, usually comes up in terms like “airborne virus.” I think of it as meaning “carried” or “transported.” So it seems to be completely distinct from “born,” which means “given birth to.” Babies are born, viruses are transported, and in my mind it was as easy as that

Of course, language is never as easy as that. So when I needed to get this right for the article, I looked it up.

“Borne” is a past tense of “to bear,” meaning “to carry.” But that got me thinking: This word isn’t quite as different from “born” as I had always considered it. After all, the very babies who get born are carried — borne — by their mothers. When I think about it this way, the distinction seems weaker.

What’s more, I’d never really thought much about the term “born of.”  I had always assumed it used “born” on purpose — the car is the offspring of such-and-such engineering tradition. But I was starting to have doubts. Couldn’t this car be carried — borne — by this engineering tradition? Could it have been, metaphorically speaking, carried on the winds of change to a dealer near you?

Technically, sure. So you can use whichever you mean. But presumably you’d want the reader or listener to be clear on what you wanted to say. Usually, the best way to achieve that is to use the term most familiar to the reader instead of your own spin on one. So to find out which is more common in the term “born/e of,” we turn to some reference works.

“Webster’s New World Dictionary” lists both “born” and “borne” as past participles of the verb “to bear.” And bear has a number of definitions, including “to carry” and even “to give birth to” (think “child bearing”). So Webster’s confirms that “born” and “borne” are both born of the same word.

When bear means to give birth to, Webster’s notes, “the passive past participle in this sense is born when by does not follow.”

A baby is born. A passenger is borne. But when followed by the word “by,” both take borne. “He was borne by her.”

"Fowler’s Modern English Usage" takes an academic approach to these words. It says that the past participle of bear “in all senses except that of birth is ‘borne’ (I have borne with this too long; he was borne along by the wind); borne is also used, when the reference is to birth, (a) in the active (has borne no children), and “b) in the passive when ‘by’ follows (of all the children borne by her only one survived). The [past participle] in the sense of birth, when used passively without ‘by,’ or adjectivally, is born (he was born blind: a born fool; of all the children born to them; melancholy born of solitude; she was born in 1950)

Of course, none of this tells us for certain whether our Buick was born of German engineering or borne of it. To find out which is the standard expression, I turned to the dubiously handy arbiter of all modern usage issues: Google. Searching for a famous line from an old Helen Reddy song, I tried “it’s wisdom born of pain” — 202,000 hits. Then I searched “it’s wisdom borne of pain” — 52 hits.

The widsom I gleaned: “born” is better. And, yes, it was painful.

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