OED Appeals: Parenting Words
Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) regularly ask for the public’s help in charting the history and usage of English. This month, mothers and fathers around the UK are being invited to contribute to the OED’s research into the language of parenting…
Recent neurological research has suggested that pregnancy and motherhood can bring about long-term changes in a woman’s brain. While not a physical alteration of brain structure, one tangible change for every parent is the volume of new vocabulary both mothers and fathers – and other caregivers of young children – acquire as they raise their children. The flood of newly-understood terms that rushes in on the new parent is particularly dramatic. Discussions about how to top and tail your infant (a world away from topping and tailing a carrot…), whether it’s necessary to pump-and-dump after a night out (see below for a glossary of some terms we’re tracking), how much tummy time a 4-month old requires, how effective dream-feeding is, or whether you should let your baby cry-it-out, suddenly seem readily comprehensible to new parents but are unlikely to form part of the active vocabulary of the average non-parent.
Likewise, pregnancy and childbirth are marked by their own idioms, the former giving us terms such as hyperemesis gravidarum, nesting, and baby brain, the latter contributing back labour, VBAC, and the phrase to cut the cord, which has taken on life beyond the delivery room as an expression that can apply to ending any sort of dependent relationship. The experience of parenting of older children brings its own lexicon, too, as mums and dads begin to discuss the merits of the naughty step, whether they should worry about being helicopter parents, or what to do about W-sitting.
It’s hard to appraise the size and scope of such language – terms that parents and caregivers know and use but which are mostly unfamiliar to those who don’t have children. Some of the words we’ve identified so far are drawn from medical terminology, others from parenting ideologies; still more describe the day-to-day care, entertainment, and education of babies and small children, or might be classed as baby talk (like dum dum). What’s apparent, though, is that this specialist lexicon is growing all the time. Baby care and parenting advice have become lucrative industries in recent years – Amazon.co.uk lists nearly 100,000 books in the category ‘Raising Children’ alone – feeding a rise in new ways of talking about childrearing. Many terms that are now everyday vocabulary for millions of parents are relatively recent coinages, so weren’t included in earlier editions of the OED. These newer arrivals reflect not only medical advances – for example, the wealth of words and acronyms associated with assisted conception – but also developments in how we think about children or about ourselves as parents (terms such as baby-led weaning, co-parenting, or babymoon). We are keen to capture the impact of all these changes and developments on the English language.
Calling all parents!
It is the OED’s practice, when adding specialist vocabulary, to consult experts in that field, whether it is archery or zoology. In this particular sphere, we believe that parents themselves are the experts, so this month the OED is inviting users of parenting website, Mumsnet, to tell us the words and phrases they think we should be including as we seek to improve the dictionary’s coverage of this vast and varied vocabulary.
The OED has always welcomed contributions from the public, but in the past our Appeals programme has typically focused on requesting evidence for particular words. This time, the slate is blank: we’re hoping Mumsnet users will help us form the very list of words we should consider researching. Of course, as with all new additions to the dictionary, the suggestions made by users of Mumsnet will undergo a process of assessment for inclusion in the dictionary, the most important criterion of which is the accumulation of a decent body of examples showing the word in actual use.
We are also offering Mumsnet users free access to the OED online for the duration of the campaign, so it’s easy to see which relevant terms we already include. To access this, and to submit your suggestions, visit our Mumsnet forum by clicking here.
Some Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting terms the OED is already tracking (with a quick gloss for the uninitiated!):
to pump and dump – to express and discard breast-milk following the consumption of alcohol
tummy time – (in a young baby) time spent lying on the stomach, rather than the back, in order to help develop strength in the neck, arms, and upper back
dream feeding – the practice of feeding a baby late at night while he or she is still somewhat asleep
nonparent – a person who is not a parent
W-sitting – the habit (mostly in young children) of sitting on the floor with the legs positioned out on either side of the body such that they form a ‘W’ shape
dum dum – a child’s word for a dummy or pacifier
nesting – the (often obsessive ) urge to clean, organize, and prepare before a baby’s birth
baby brain – a supposed lower state of cognitive function experienced during pregnancy or following the birth of a baby
back labour – intense lower back pain felt between or during contractions
assisted conception – an umbrella term for any of various medical interventions to aid and assist conception
baby-led weaning – a method of introducing solid food to a baby’s diet, in which infants are encouraged to self-feed from the outset (rather than being fed from a spoon by an adult) and emphasis is placed on exploring smell, taste, texture, etc., rather than on how much food is consumed
coparenting – the practice of two people who are not in a sexual or romantic relationship conceiving or raising a child
babymoon – a holiday taken by a pregnant woman and her partner before the baby is born
Got suggestions for us? Submit them now!