What is the Etymology of the Word Child?

etymology of the word child

Millie Slavidou

Millie is a British writer and translator living and working in Greece. She writes about etymology on Jump! Mag and has published fiction for kids with Jump! Books

Latest posts by Millie Slavidou (see all)

Does the term “etymology” mean anything to you?
Put simply, it is the study of the origin of words and the ways in which their meanings have changed and developed over the course of the centuries.
An etymologist, therefore, is someone who looks at individual words or sometimes phrases and expressions, and tries to trace where they have come from.
A parenting site cannot be complete without reference to what makes us parents: our children, of course. Children fill our days – when we are not with them, we think about them.
What of the etymology of the word child itself? Where does it come from, and has it ever meant anything different?

Let’s take a look at Middle English, a step back into the past from our modern tongue. We find two words that are of interest. One is childen, which is a verb, and means ‘to give birth, to have a child’.

Interesting that such a basic verb, affecting the whole of humanity, should have been lost. There is no person who hasn’t been born, and all people have mothers who gave birth to them. Yet somehow, we ceased to use this verb.

The other word, which we shall look at in more depth, is chīld. This is variously spelt cild, chil, shild, sheld and even cheld. These variations in spelling can be explained firstly by the lack of standardization in writing, and secondly in the varying pronunciations in different regions, as well as personal approaches to how things should be written.

Let’s take a look at an example from 1398:

 

Aristotel seiþ þat a childe haþ moche brayn & ful greet in comparisoun to his body. þerfore þe ouer partye of a childe is heuyere þan þe neþir partyes.

Aristotle says that a child has a large brain, much larger in comparison to its body, therefore the upper part of a child is heavier than the lower part.

 

This is taken from On the Properties of Things, John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus’s Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum, which was a sort of medieval encyclopaedia.

You might be thinking that the word has not changed a lot since that time, and indeed this would seem to be the case, although the pronunciation altered along with many other words in the Great Vowel Shift, changing from the /i/ sound (ee) to /ai/ (eye).

Can we find any earlier examples? Indeed we can. The next step along the way will take us to Old English and the tenth century.

 

Ðæt cild wixþ and gewurþ eft cnapa and eft syððan cniht

the child grows, and then becomes a boy, and afterwards a young man

 

This example is taken from the Codex Exoniensis, or the Exeter Book, an anthology of poetry in Old English. You can see that here no distinction was made with cild to make it clear that it was a male in the reference – the rest of the sentence clarifies that. However, the word was not just used to mean ‘young male’. A similar sentence could have been constructed in reference to a girl growing to womanhood.

But what should stand out from that example is the meaning. It tells us that the child grows and then becomes a boy. So the child is not a boy, it becomes one. So what is the child, if not a boy?

The answer is simple. It means a baby, and also a foetus. It is not difficult to see how a word for baby can by extension start to mean older children too, and gradually the word developed into what we understand by it today.

Old English’s cild comes from Proto-Germanic, where it may have been kelthaz or kilthaz, probably meaning ‘child in the womb’. There are cognates in other Germanic languages, such as Danish kuld, meaning ‘litter’ and Icelandic kelta, meaning ‘lap’.

 

 

Further Reading

Millie Slavidou

If this has wakened your interest in etymology, check out Millie’s blog Glossologics. For children, Millie blogs about etymology on Jump! Mag – start with the introduction of etymology for kids, then have a read through our archives.

World Wide Words

Writer and journalist Michael Quinine provides citations and advice for the Oxford English Dictionary, and investigates the English language on his website.

“The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech”.

Mashed Radish

John Kelly, educator and language geek is the creator of Mashed Radish.

“Each etymology is like a magic portal into a tiny truth about history, culture, language, or the mind—a miniature eureka, a quiet a-ha, a satisfying huh, or a little story that I believe only a good word origin can tell. So, each week, I pick some words, usually based on a newsy theme or topic, to see what we can learn from their roots.”

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