By Dr Oliver Tearle
The words ‘child’ and ‘children’ have had an interesting history. Although we can all easily define ‘child’ now – a young person who had not yet attained adulthood – this definition in itself raises some intriguing questions. Legally, a ‘child’ may be someone under sixteen years of age, or someone under eighteen years of age, depending on the country or context; or some other marker or boundary between ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’ may be given.
The etymology of ‘child’ and ‘children’ is also surprising. Let’s take a closer look at these curious words.
The origins of ‘child’ are not entirely straightforward. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that ‘child’ is cognate with the Gothic kilþei (‘womb’) and inkilþō (‘pregnant woman’), and that the word is ‘probably’ from the same Indo-European base as the Gothic kalbo (‘calf’, as in the young of a cow). Some etymologists also propose a link between ‘child’ and the Sanskrit jaṭhara meaning ‘belly, womb’, although the OED observes that this origin is uncertain and disputed.
In any case, what these (putative and confirmed) origins of ‘child’ show is that the word was more narrowly applied to childbirth, pregnancy, and infancy when the word was itself in its infancy.
And this is borne out by the written records. In Anglo-Saxon times, a ‘child’ was specifically a newborn baby, or possibly someone even younger than that: the word ‘child’ originally denoted an infant, a newborn, or even a foetus or unborn child. As Julia Cresswell points out in the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, this original meaning is retained in the word ‘childbirth’.
What’s more, ‘children’ was not a word in Anglo-Saxon times: back then, as John Ayto helpfully notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the plural of ‘child’ was ‘child’, much as ‘sheep’ is the plural of the singular ‘sheep’ to this day.
‘Children’ would not emerge until the twelfth century. This remains an unusual plural, of course, found elsewhere only in the word ‘brethren’, a plural for ‘brother’. This makes ‘children’ an irregular plural form, which is three-fifths longer than its singular form.
Thereafter, ‘child’ was used to refer to an infant, but it tended to be used about a female infant or a baby girl. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, for instance, the shepherd says, ‘A very pretty bairn. A boy or a child, I wonder?’ Even in 1755, when he published his colossal Dictionary of the English Language, the great Samuel Johnson defined the word simply (and somewhat tautologically) as ‘A girl child’.
Indeed, as Cresswell also observes, the expression ‘children should be seen and not heard’ originally referred to female children only. As early as 1400, ‘A mayde schuld be seen, but not herd’ was in use as proverbial wisdom. Variations on this axiom are found throughout the early modern period: for instance, in 1773 we find ‘a pretty woman should rather be seen than heard’.
It was only in 1820 that the form ‘children should be seen and not heard’ first surfaced. At least by then the proverb had been cleansed of its unpleasant misogynistic undertones, since ‘children’ had become gender-neutral.
It was in the thirteenth century that ‘child’ started to be used in reference to youths or adolescents as well as very small infants. Indeed, the gender associations appear to have swung the other way for a while, and ‘child’ was used to describe young men more often than not, including young men of noble birth. This survives in the title ‘Childe’, with an ‘e’ on the end, as in Childe Harold (Lord Byron’s poem) and Childe Roland (Robert Browning’s).
Of course, ‘child’ and ‘children’ are still used to refer both to very young people and older adolescents. But ‘child’ can even be used to refer to adults. For instance, if I say, ‘my friend has a child who went into acting’, that ‘child’ may be thirteen or thirty years old, since ‘child’ – true to its original, narrower Anglo-Saxon meaning – is being used, in such a context, to refer to one’s offspring, even when those children have grown up and become adults themselves.