With roots stretching as far back as Old Saxon, and as far away on the Indo-European family tree as Sanskrit, the world child has a rich history. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines this word, as it appears in current usage, in many varied ways--an expected development, given the word's ample past: the unborn or newly born human being (1), a young person of either sex below the age of puberty (2), one who has the character, manners or attainments of a child, especially a person of immature experience or judgement (3), a youth of gentle birth (5). However, why all these meanings came about follows a long line of interesting twists.

The timeline begins with the language of the Anglo-Saxons (AS) before English ever came into existence. In a very descriptive line from the poem King Horn, written in Saxon, "Ðæt cild wixþ and gewurj. eft cnapa and eft syððan cniht," one of the first uses of the word cild appears. The line translates to the child grows, and then becomes a boy, and aftwards a young man (An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary 154). This word also finds itself in the Gospel of St. Matthew, written in Saxon, provided and translated by Joseph Bosworth in An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, "Aris and nim dæt cild surge et accipe puerum." Also, phrases like "þurh cildes had" (in a state of childhood) began springing up in the literature of the time, this example from the Codex Exoniensis, a collection of AS poetry. The similarities between the AS cild and the Present Day English (PDE) child relate closely enough (the long /ï/ (phonemically long /i/) sound shifted, during the Great Vowel Shift leading up to Early Modern English (EMnE), landing on an /ai/) that many agree that the Saxon word presents the ancestor to the current word.

From Saxon, the next off-ramp on the highway to PDE exits in the Old English (OE) period of English history, roughly between AD 400 and AD 1066. Arthur R. Bordon's Comprehensive Old-English Dictionary cites several instances of words used in OE that used cild or cyld as free roots. Bordon defines cild as a child, an infant, a young man, or a youth of gentle birth, perhaps implying that the varied defintions of the word showed dialectical differentiation and personal preference in referring to children and young adults. The celebration of Cildamæssedæg (Children's Day, 28 December), for example, or cildfarn, "carrying of children/pregnancy" show the variations in how the word existed. What also interests linguists surrounds the grammatical genders given to the varied cild- words. Cildfarn, for example--a feminine noun, as only women could become pregnant. Some words share very similar meanings, but opposing genders, as in the case of cildgeogoð (feminine) and cildhad (masculine), which both mean "childhood." Additionally, as in the case of cildhama, "womb, afterbirth," the noun gender makes no sense at all--masculine, in this case, precisely the opposite to what one might expect. Many other words containing the cild prefix existed: cildclaðas "swaddling clothes," cildfende "nurse," and a variety of words meaning "youthful," such as cildgeorg, cildisc, cildlic, and cildsung.

From OE, the next logical step takes history to Middle English (ME). From the Middle English Dictionary, the first occurence of child arises, though mingling in equal number with the variations cild, chil, shild, sheld, and childes. One of the first signs of children finds itself in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales "General Prologue": "With scalled browes blake, and piled berd; of his visage children were aferd" (628). The Middle English Dictionary defines child simply enough: a young child, a baby (1a). This defintion expands by the varierd uses of the word into an unborn child or a fetus (1b).

As the wealth of the written word expanded during the 12th and 13th centuries in Britain, so, too, did English's definition of child grow. The Middle English Dictionary goes on to say child also referred to the Christ Child, or Christ in any of his manifestations (2a, b). It goes on to define the word also as a young man in service, such as a page or attendant (5b), and a youth of noble birth, especially those aspiring for knighthood (6a), echoing one of the previous meanings of cild in OE. Note also the similarities between the word cild and cniht in the passage quoted from King Horn, both in definition given in the gloss, and in spelling.

Where child came from before its occurence in AS remains a mystery. In An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Rev. Walter W. Skeat notes that child may share some lineage with the Sanskrit word jathara (for *jalthara-), a word referring to children as genderless (unique in the centum languages, but prevalent in the Satem languages of Indo-European), or the Danish kuld and Swedish kull, both of which refer to a litter of animals. Skeat posits that child differentiates from Germanic synonyms, such as the Dutch and German kind, given its genderless status, which implies that child most likely appeared through absorption from a native language (106).

Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, An. 1898. Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller. London: Oxford UP, 1972.
Chaucer, Geoffrey: General Prologue. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.
Comprehensive Old-English Dictionary, A. Arthur R. Borden, Jr. Florida: UP of America, 1982.
Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Rev. Walter W. Skeat. New edition. London: Oxford UP, Amen House, 1958.
Middle English Dictionary. Ed. Hans Kurath. Third printing. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UP of Michigan, 1970.
Oxford English Dictionary, The. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. 2nd ed. London: Clarendon, 1989.

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