From babymoon to helicopter parenting: pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting words in the OED
The last ten years have been particularly fruitful ones for the Oxford English Dictionary. Over that time, staff have celebrated the birth of twenty-five babies, and a lexicographer bringing a newborn or toddler to the office to be introduced to mummy or daddy’s colleagues is a fairly regular occurrence. (The OED’s first editor, James Murray, allowed his exceptionally large brood of children to earn pocket money sorting quotation slips sent in by contributors; these days we set our smaller visitors less arduous tasks, like finishing up the relentless supply of cake in the Dictionary’s offices.)
And children aren’t the only thing that editors and researchers bring back from maternity or paternity leave: with a wealth of parenting (and grandparenting) experience between us, we’ve been noticing a steady uptick in new word suggestions added to our in-house database on the related subjects of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. Lexicographers are always on duty, even when changing dirty nappies!
These suggestions reflect personal experiences but many of them also resonate much more widely, even with people who are not parents. This distinctive lexicon maps a whole range of human experience, from immense joy to immeasurable sorrow and, considering its relevance to so much of the population, it seemed an underrepresented category of vocabulary in the Dictionary.
For this latest OED update, we combed parenting manuals and websites for terms we ought to consider including; we read books on pregnancy, giving birth, and introducing solids to your baby. We searched corpora and our database of suggestions – collected over many years from the submissions of editors, researchers, readers, consultants, and members of the public – for related terms. And we decided to ask the experts – parents – for their opinions. We took our search to Mumsnet, the online parenting forum, asking their users to tell us the words and phrases they thought we should consider. All these suggestions were subjected to our usual process of assessment for inclusion in the Dictionary.
Here – by happy coincidence, just over nine months after our Mumsnet appeal – are the results of our findings: over a hundred new entries, phrases, and senses drawn from a vast and diverse vocabulary.
Some, like breech adj. (describing the position of a fetus in the womb) are both widely familiar and long overdue (our earliest evidence dates to 1842). Others are much more recent developments: our youngest new entry is mommy blogger, a term (sometimes regarded as disparaging or reductive) for a female blogger who writes chiefly or exclusively about parenting issues.
Slang terms like Aunt Flo (a punning euphemism for the menstrual period) and blunt colloquialisms such as to pee on a stick (to take a pregnancy test) and to pump and dump (to express and discard breastmilk, instead of feeding it to one’s child) are new additions, while at the other end of the spectrum, medical terminology, like diastasis recti (separation of the rectus abdominis muscles, often seen in women during or after pregnancy) and biliblanket (a phototherapy device for treating jaundice in newborns), is represented.
There is a plethora of words denoting toys and entertainments for babies and children (baby gym, board book, balance bike, comfort object) as well as terms that give us a snapshot of various different parenting philosophies, like baby-led weaning, AP – for ‘attachment parenting’ – helicopter parenting, bed-sharing, and CIO – standing for ‘cry-it-out’.
The update also includes a number of words that reflect the diversity of parental experience, such as the verb co-parent and noun co-parenting. These two terms are not only used with reference to divorced or separated parents working together to bring up their children, but also increasingly employed to describe the experiences of parents who are not in a romantic relationship with one another but who choose to have a child together.
Differences between British English and American English account for a number of other entries in the most recent update. A diaper cake, for example, is often associated with that other truly American custom, the baby shower. Resembling a tiered cake, a diaper cake is decorated with a number of practical items for a new baby, such as clothing, small toys, toiletries, etc., with the bulk of the ‘cake’ usually comprising twisted or rolled nappies. Similar nappy cakes now sometimes show up in Britain and elsewhere but neither the gift nor the equivalent term have quite caught on yet – we’re tracking it.
Too posh to push, on the other hand, is a uniquely British disparaging comment on elective caesareans, apparently coined in the Daily Mail in the late 1990s; it has neither caught on nor has any equivalent in American English, a curiosity perhaps influenced by a higher rate of caesarean delivery in the United States.
The words in this update give us some insights into the (linguistic) inventiveness, courage, and sense of humour required to raise a child. They also, perhaps, reflect the truism that each successive generation somehow remakes language (and society) in its own image. Before children can even speak, their behaviour, needs – the very fact of their existence – shapes the language of their parents, carers, and those around them. Just as our world is making its mark on our children, they’re quietly (and often not so quietly…) making their mark on us.
Read the full OED update on pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting words – be prepared for an explosion of poo-related suggestions.