By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word young is cognate with many other words in various different languages, all of which convey the same idea of youth. But ‘young’, of course, can mean not only ‘youthful’ but also (of an idea, an organisation, or something else) ‘new’ or ‘in its early stages’.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the commonest and most popular synonyms for young that the English language has to offer. We’ll also discuss some of the best antonyms, at the end of the article.
Synonyms for the word ‘young’
One common synonym for young is YOUTHFUL, which obviously shares the same root. The words are so synonymous, so closely matched in meaning, that they are interchangeable. Youthful has been in use since at least the 1590s, when the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser used it in his epic poem The Faerie Queene: ‘The youthfull knight could not for ought be staide.’
Depending on the gender being described, the pair of adjectives, BOYISH and GIRLISH, can serve as useful synonyms meaning young or youthful. They’re often used slightly differently, however, to reflect the disparate attitudes to the genders down the ages: so for instance, one might talk of a man who looks more youthful than his years having boyish good looks or boyish charm, while girlish-looking tends to suggest that a woman looks too young for her age.
JUNIOR is a word that can be used to mean ‘young’, and is especially useful when employed comparatively or relatively: e.g., as the opening line of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Dockery and Son’ has it, ‘Dockery was junior to you’. Its antonym or complementary term is obviously senior.
Another J-word, JUVENILE, is, like junior, derived from the Latin juvenis meaning ‘young’. (The Italian football club Juventus is named from the Italian for ‘youth’ because it originally comprised high school students.)
But although juvenile can sometimes be used in a neutral sense, merely to describe somebody of a young age (as in juvenile reading for children’s books), it is perhaps as commonly used to refer to somebody who is acting in a young or IMMATURE way, especially when they should know better. So an immature prank or joke might be described as ‘juvenile’, for instance.
A similar distinction can be found in a pair of adjectives, CHILDLIKE and CHILDISH, where the former simply means ‘like a child’ (but not actually one any more), but the latter implies behaviour from somebody who is old enough to know better. Here, then, childish is not a simple synonym for young but can be used to connote certain qualities or characteristics associated with youth and immaturity.
INFANTILE is another word which is more often used as a term of reproach: e.g., your behaviour in front of our guests was infantile.
If they were being truly infantile they wouldn’t be able to speak and would probably be in a cot (and nappy), since infants are, strictly speaking, very young children, younger than toddlers (the word comes from the Latin infans which means ‘unable to speak’, so technically the term has tended to be employed for children who haven’t yet learned to talk).
Denoting older people but still often used in a reproachful sense is the adjective ADOLESCENT, which technically means simply ‘becoming an adult’, or, if you will, TEENAGE.
A more figurative and even poetic term is the adjective GREEN, which (since the sixteenth century) has suggested someone young and lacking in experience (and perhaps, because of this, rather naïve and innocent). For instance, in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra says:
My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then!
For this reason, SALAD DAYS is often used as a term for one’s period of youthful inexperience.
Sticking with the garden and green things, the words GROWING, BUDDING, and FLOWERING can all be used about things (or people) yet to reach maturity, or their full potential. So we might talk about a budding entrepreneur who is new to the business, or a flowering of interest in something that has only recently begun to attract attention.
RAW takes its cue from food (if not strictly from the vegetable patch), and suggests something (or someone) crude and rough around the edges, again often because of a lack of experience.
A word of uncertain origin, though cognate with similar words in other languages, is CALLOW, which is another word for INEXPERIENCED or UNTRAINED. Originally, callow simply meant ‘bald’ or ‘without hair’; quite how it came to be associated with a lack of experience isn’t entirely clear.
A term derived from birds is UNFLEDGED, i.e., a bird that hasn’t yet learnt to use its wings to fly the nest; it’s used figuratively to refer to someone young and lacking in the proper experience. An early instance of this term is found in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline from the early seventeenth century: ‘We poore vnfledg’d / Haue neuer wing’d from view o’ th’ nest.’
But if you’re talking about something that’s young in the sense of being recently developed or created, then NEW can serve as a useful synonym, e.g., a new business is one that is, to all intents and purposes, young and in its early days.
Antonyms for the word ‘young’
Fairly obviously, the commonest antonym for ‘young’ is OLD, which conveys the exact opposite. If we’re talking maturity, then instead of immature the opposite adjective, MATURE, can be used, while someone who isn’t callow or green is EXPERIENCED.