February 28, 2020

Words of the Month - The Odd Origins of Children

        You’d think that words for children, such as girl, boy, and babe, would be among our most basic words, and therefore with straightforward etymologies all the way back to Old English.  So it is with father, mother, sister and brother.  But for some reason words for children seem to be a little unruly.
        girl is of unknown origin, first appearing around 1300 (the middle of Middle English) and first could mean children of either sex, although more often female.  One theory relates it to a g-r root used for all sorts of young, immature, or worthless creatures, and says the final -l is a diminutive.  Another theory is that it derives from an Old English word for “garment,” presumably because children were wrapped in it.  The bottom line, though, is that we don’t really know.

        boy arrived in Middle English perhaps half a century earlier, and first meant “servant,” and then, in the way of classist society, “rascal, urchin.”  All across Europe there are words that mean both “male child” and “servant,” such as French garçon.  In English it was not until around 1400 that boy began to mean “male child.”

        lad, also from around 1300, was a first a “foot soldier” or “young male servant,” although where it came from is obscure.  Theories include “one who is led,” or a Norse word for woolen stockings.  The meaning of “boy or young man” is from the mid-fifteenth century.

        lass entered English with the meaning “girl, young woman,” but its origin is just as murky as the others.  Is it from Old Swedish for “unmarried”?  Old Norse for “idle, weak”?  West Frisian for “light, thin”?  Old Danish for “rag”?  Although not apparently related to lad etymologically, lads and lasses have been paired in English since the early fifteenth century.

        brat - In case you’ve been wondering about the hypotheses of various words for children deriving from “garment,” “stockings,” and “rag,” the model seems to be here.  This slang word for “beggar’s child” derives (c. 1500) from a dialect word for a ragged garment, related to the Old English bratt meaning “cloak”.

        babe dates to the late fourteenth century and is probably derived from the sounds of a baby babbling (as is the word babble itself).  This is akin to mama, papa, dada, and other first baby words.  Baby is a diminutive form which is now more standard.

        kid - You probably know that this was originally a young goat.  It was first used as slang for human children in the 1590s, and was relatively standard (although informal) by the 1840s.  This one may illustrate most clearly what is probably going on with all those other obscurely-derived words for children.  That is, people tend to call children by teasing or joking nicknames, sometimes affectionate, sometimes disparaging (sometimes both at the same time).  A common enough slang word eventually tends to become standard, especially as the children who learn these words grow up and retain them into adult speech.

        In case you’re wondering what people called their children before the arrival of all these words in Middle English, the words that derive from Old English roots are bairn, now only in northern English and Scottish dialects, and child.  But while child may have a straightforward etymology, it has an unruly plural.  Originally the plural was the same as the singular, but around 975 a plural form with an -r ending developed.  Then during the Middle English period the standard Germanic -en plural was added, but the -r- was kept, so children actually has a double plural, like saying “childses”.
        This just goes to show that children don’t always follow the grown-ups’ rules!

[Picture: Catch Me!, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007.]

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