July 2, 2022

"In Middle English, male children were 'knave' girls while female children were 'gay' girls."

"Only in Modern English did 'girl' come to refer only to female children. Why this happened isn’t certain, but it’s not uncommon for words to specialize over time in that way: 'meat' originally referred to all food or sustenance, kind of like the phrase 'daily bread'; 'apple' to fruits generally; and 'queen' began as a word for 'woman' in general, and only later specialized royally. However, which words go in which directions can be quite fortuitous, and some words acquire wider, rather than narrower meanings. 'Dog' first referred to certain larger, more powerful dogs, then came to mean all dogs. 'Child' came to mean all pre-adults rather than just the littlest ones. As we moved from Middle English to Modern English, even 'child' could take on a female meaning in a certain context. A line in Shakespeare’s 'The Winter’s Tale' asks, 'A boy or a child, I wonder?' And one might suppose that this suggests that a girl is somehow less distinctive than a boy, a mere generic 'child.' But it’s possible this actually traces back to when 'child' referred specifically to female children."

23 comments:

Achilles said...

The push to erase gender roles in society is not popular.

It is the equivalent of a retreating army burning the ground behind them.

The regime doesn’t have long.

RideSpaceMountain said...

A yes, fun with indo-European languages. There's been a lot of kinship group confusion over the last 5000 years (for instance 3-4000 years ago your wife was also your mother or your aunt, or any kingroup 'girl').

Just like Chinese. Some dumb scribe misses a character stroke during Western Han and now we can't decipher half the jinsha oracle tortoise shell plastrons. And people thinm emojis are harmless fun. Ha!

Richard said...

McWhorter never fails to be interesting.

h said...

As I child we used to say this prayer at mealtime:

Some ha' meat and canna eat
And some would eat that lack it.
But we ha' meat and we can eat,
So let the Lord be thanked.

gilbar said...

oh Come ON! next, you'll be telling us that Bimbo is italian for baby BOY

Saint Croix said...

The problem with sexualizing children is that sex is for adults, not for children. Over thousands of years of humanity we have decided that children having sex is a bad thing.

To insist that your six-year-old needs to be castrated with drugs -- or knives -- and "fixed" into the correct sexuality is at odds with all of human history.

It's simply not important if your 6-year-old thinks she's a boy, or vice versa. She or he is a child. It's insanity to try to impose this medical correction on an innocent child. It's evil. And it's the same evil that is brought to you by the people who stab or poison unwanted children.

Our children are not our property. They are our children, and belong to us. But they are created by God.

RideSpaceMountain said...

@gilbar

Actually that would be "bamboccioni" (big babies), also a common italian pejorative for adult men who wont stop living in their parents basement.

Its actually been a big issue in Italy, and recently decided by their supreme court in 2020. Many such cases!

Yancey Ward said...

Is the Shakespeare really saying child=small female in that context? Or is it saying boy=male older than, let's say, 12?

Also, I don't see child really being used today in reference to all pre-adults- I don't use it at all for someone over the age of 12 (unless it is Joe Shit-For-Brains Biden), nor do I see others using it that way.

rhhardin said...

Britain is so advanced that cunt has pretty much always included males.

n.n said...

In the modern model of equity and inclusion under an ethical religion, both boys and girls, men and women, are assumed, asserted to lack dignity and agency, a perpetual green state that justifies direction in secular society by mortal god, goddesses, and experts.

MayBee said...

Richard- that's what I was going to say! McWhorter is so interesting! And Althouse loves interesting things, and brings them to us in her interesting ways.

Paddy O said...

We all know that the reason the middle English used the same word was because they always waited for the child to become an adult and choose its gender

BADuBois said...

Fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Michael K said...

Is McWhorter a biologist ?

Narayanan said...

did not term MAN include both male and female?

mikee said...

The Celts, Saxons, Norse and French had a bit to say about what words got used by their woad-dyed and mud-daubed predecessors on the British Isles. Sometimes language was enforced by feudal duties imposed by the invader, or teachings of the Church, or even a desire to hide a theft from the putative owner of an Irish salmon, a Scottish sheep, or a cow that just happened to end up as beef in your hut. Language is a wonderful thing and can be used to lift up or to oppress, to edify or to confuse.

Richard Dolan said...

Yes, etymology can be fun. Since what can be said frames what can be thought, thinking and speech tend to move in tandem, but perhaps not always at the same speed.

n.n said...

Girls are gay: full of joy, merry; light-hearted, carefree. Boys, too. Neither incubators nor chambers, nor donors nor stooges, respectively.

madAsHell said...

...and yet no discussion of the German roots.

He’s writing feminist talking points. It’s bullshit.

Magson said...

"Corn" used to be a generic term for any grain, and as such maize was also called Indian corn, until lingual drift happened and we barely ever call it maize and just use the former generic term to mean a specific thing now.

And while the British colonist had their biscuits, the Dutch in New Amsterdam had their kookje (little cakes), and well.... Americans now have cookies while all the other Brit colonies still have biscuits. Good times!

ccscientist said...

"man" derives from the latin "manu" for hand. "Manual labor" is not labor done by males but labor done by hand (as opposed to by draft animals or machines). "manumission" meant "free the hands" of slaves. "manuscript" is hand-written. Drawing conclusions about things because of the way words currently look is foolish.

gpm said...

>>"man" derives from the latin "manu" for hand.

In the compounds you cite, yes. The term "man" itself in English has nothing to do with "hand." It goes back to Old English, old Germanic, and, in some form, probably back to IndoEuropean with an entirely different meaning.

>>"manumission" meant "free the hands" of slaves

I think not. Rather, it meant an act of the hand that resulted in the manumission of a slave.

I think the rest of your examples are correct.

--gpm

gpm said...

>>McWhorter never fails to be interesting.

Have read a couple of his books. I also listened to Lexicon Valley regularly for a couple of years. About the only whatever they're called I've ever listened to. I was about to follow to wherever it was he was going, then he went to NYT instead. Not about to follow him there (even though I have a temporary $4 a month subscription I need to terminate real soon).

--gpm