Yesterday, I heard the mother of a 19-year-old activist describe how the transgender 19-year-old had been struck in the head by a cop at the I-94 shutdown on Saturday night. Aside from outrage at the story, I mostly noticed how inadequate English words are when we want to speak of our relations without gender or age.
Daughter and son are age-neutral, but there is no gender-neutral equivalent term except offspring, which seems completely wrong. Brothers and sisters can be replaced with siblings without sounding too awful, but offspring?
At the same time, child, which is the term this mother used when telling the story, can't help but imply a minor, even someone younger than adolescence. It's infantilizing. We have the neologism adult child (as in Adult Children of Alcoholics, ACOAs), which is clear, I guess, but is that the best we can do, other than the clinical-sounding offspring?
How about a return to the Old English bairn? Does that imply youth, or just relationship? I guess it feels like it implies youth, but maybe that's just because I translate it into child in my head.
The derivations of all of these words reveal some notable facts:
- Every one of the words listed above comes from Old English and goes back (through Germanic languages rather than Romance languages) to Proto-Indo-European. Even sibling, which I had thought was probably a later word, but no, it meant relative or kinsman in Old English. Sibling fell out of use for hundreds of years as English evolved and changed, until it was brought back into use in 1903 in the field of anthropology.
- Sister comes from one of the most persistent and unchanging PIE root words, with similar forms in all other languages descended from PIE. Brother's root word is almost as persistent.
- Offspring is just as old as the other words, but it isn't meant to be used as a singular. It comes from words that together mean just what you'd think: those who spring off of someone.
- Child, bairn, and son all have roots that derive from PIE words pertaining to the act of birth or carrying a child in the womb. Which is not a great fit for our era when parents are often not genetically related to their children. Child's Old English equivalent means newborn or even fetus. All those extra years up to adolescence got added later.
Here are some other not-so-good options: spawn, fry, brood, get, progeny, prole. Like offspring, many of those imply pluralness or, worse, have negative connotations from associations with fish or illegitimacy.
Though I admit it would be funny if we all started saying, "I got an email from my prole the other day."