Avoiding the “B Word”

by Nancy French

Thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the phrase “love child” is splattered across newspapers and blogs around the nation to describe his (surprise!) son, as journalists struggle to find the right word to use to describe the ten-year-old boy.

Of course, illegitimacy is not a new phenomenon. In ancient Rome, the Latin phrase, mater semper certa est was a legal principle that indicated that “the mother is always certain,” while it’s much more difficult to identify the dad. Later, boys born without the benefit of a married father and mother were called “bastards.” Contemporaries of William the Conqueror, for example, called him (with apparently no insult intended) “William the Bastard” because of his birth’s circumstances.

In Shakespeare’s day, the word “bastard” was so offensive it was frequently written “b-d,” because lineage was highly treasured. But since then — even though it was actually a 1235 English legal term — the word has fallen on hard times.

“Having a child out of wedlock” became the more polite way to say it, but by the time the Supremes sang their 1968 hit, the phrase “love child” had also become popular. Later, after it was discovered that Rev. Jesse Jackson had a child out of wedlock, talk show hosts and journalists generally used “love child” as they reported the saga.

Similarly, reporters now avoid the “b word,” when writing about Schwarzenegger’s situation. In fact, the Toronto Sun catalogued over 3,500 Schwarzenegger news articles, to discover that only a few “fringe” media outlets used “bastard.” They even discovered that a question about the Schwarzenegger son which used the term “bastard” was deleted after being posted on Yahoo! Answers.

Ridding the language of “bastard” as it pertains to children is a positive etymological development, since these offspring obviously have no control over the circumstances of their birth. After all, society should value life, even if it’s conceived in less-than-ideal (or, as the church would say, sinful) circumstances. However, doesn’t “love child,” swing too far in the other direction? The phrase, perhaps, overly idealizes his or her parents’ relationship . . . forcing the word “love” into a place that it has never been and might not belong.

I’m not sure we should settle on “love child,” but chances are, America will have many more opportunities to tweak our terminology.

— Nancy French is the author of the upcoming Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War and can be followed on Facebook here.