In the latest installment of On the Media’s ongoing series, reporter Tony Maciulis traces the etymological ancestry of “Love Child.”
Word Watch: Love Child
January 27, 2001
BOB GARFIELD: Another installment in our Word Watch segment, this week it's Love Child. Love child is the more polite term referring to a child born out of wedlock. On the Media's Tony Macilus explains how the word was spawned.
TONY MACILUS: William, the leader of the Norman Conquest of 1066 is known today as William the Conqueror, but he was really William the Bastard. That was his nickname. It wasn't a pejorative term then. Today we'd call him William the Love Child. Evan Morris, author of The Word Detective, explains the evolution of this euphemism.
EVAN MORRIS: It probably started out as a shortened form of love begotten child, which first shows up in the 18th century. And at the time it was one of a wide range of euphemisms for a child born out of wedlock.
TONY MACILUS: Etymologists like Morris mourn the passing of the more inventive ones like bachelor's child and doorstep child.
EVAN MORRIS: There was also a euphemism that's a bit stranger which was wood colt which referred to a colt of unknown parentage, you know, that the--the colt had been conceived when the horse was out in the woods somewhere, I guess.
TONY MACILUS: While wood colt is an amusing phrase, it's probably best that it didn't become the dominant euphemism for a child born out of wedlock. Imagine how strange the Supremes' hit song would be-- [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] --wood cult, never meant to be? [SUPREMES SINGING "LOVE CHILD"] The phrase "love child" was already widely used when the song came out in 1968. Diana Ross' gold lame dresses might be dated but even young hipsters like Claire Danes are using the word "love child." [CLAIRE DANES ON SOUNDTRACK] And so when the news broke that Reverend Jesse Jackson had a child out of wedlock, it was the word of choice for journalists and talk show hosts. [CLIPS George Clooney used it at The Golden Globes this week. [CLIP] "Love Child" prevailed. The more common and less artful term is reserved for a different purpose. New York talk show host Sam Greenfield.
SAM GREENFIELD: No one's bad in this incident. The only bastard I really know is Tom Delay [?]. And he's actually, I think, in his fifties.
TONY MACILUS: Now filled with negative connotations Etymologist Evan Morris says "bastard" comes from a French word for pack saddle.
EVAN MORRIS: The idea being that, you know, two people are out in the woods somewhere and using a pack saddle for a bed. And that's where the kid comes from.
TONY MACILUS: Wood colts, pack saddles. There's a lot going on in the woods. Maybe that's what Jesse Jackson meant when he said stay out 'the bushes. In New York, I'm Tony Macilus for On the Media.