The Ambiguities of “Child”

It surprises most people to discover that the word “child” originally meant, not a rugrat like their own progeny, but a young nobleman, and could function as his title. Meditating on this, I find myself wondering whether all languages share the ambiguity of English whereby “child” refers both to the temporary state of being an infant and the permanent state of being someone’s offspring. This may actually matter: for a man of sixty can say that his son of forty is his “child”, and this is a true statement – he is his offspring – and yet it is a false statement as and when it implies that the forty-year-old is a child, without the possessive. Is it possible for controlling parents to slide between the two meanings, from “you are my child” to “you are (just) a child”? Yes, it is, I know this for a fact. The fact that we have a single word for the two things makes it possible for them to do this. Perhaps there are human languages in which they can’t.

Posted on March 27, 2009 at 20:23 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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