Release notes: parenting words

Release notes: parenting words

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 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 our dictionary.

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 online parenting forum, Mumsnet, 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 OED. One hurdle we had to overcome in the process was the informal, ephemeral, sometimes quite private nature of much of the discourse surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. Even some of the medical language—familiar though it was to mothers and fathers in the Dictionaries’ office—was difficult to evaluate using published parenting literature, medical journals, etc. On the other hand, we often found the Internet was teeming with evidence of these words in daily use, as parents—mothers especially—seek or offer up advice and anecdotes, or simply reach out across the web, to share the sometimes intensely solitary experience of bringing up children. Although the OED has been including evidence drawn from the Internet since 2001—making extensive use in our quotation paragraphs of Usenet newsgroups and, more recently, Twitter—the nature of some of the words in this update prompted us to look more closely at websites, especially forums, as we evaluated their suitability for inclusion, too.

Here, in our latest update—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 for a female blogger who writes chiefly or exclusively about parenting issues. Dating from 2005 (although preceded by mom blogger one year earlier), this term—sometimes regarded as disparaging or reductive—perhaps hints at one of the reasons why parenting language can be elusive in published sources: that the business of raising (and talking about raising) children is still sometimes regarded as something chiefly domestic, private, or (more dismissively) perhaps not of wider interest or significance—the kind of thing once widely dismissed as ‘women’s work’.

The words and phrases published in this update are varied in so many ways. They include 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 breast milk, instead of feeding it to one’s child); 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); words denoting toys and entertainments for babies and children (baby gym, board book, balance bike, comfort object); and terms that give us a snapshot of various different parenting philosophies (baby-led weaning, AP—attachment parenting—helicopter parenting, bed-sharing, CIOstanding for ‘cry-it-out’). They also include 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.

Many of the terms in this update are marked by a certain level of impenetrability to outsiders, whether non-parents, new parents—or those in different regions.  Terms for infant sleepwear turn out to be surprisingly varied and opaque, blanket sleeper—a chiefly American term for a warm, one-piece item of clothing, used as an alternative to blankets at night—being just the tip of the iceberg. In the UK, a footed one-piece garment is usually known either as a Babygro (a trademarked term) or a sleepsuit (or sometimes a romper suit); while heavier-weight garments similar to the blanket sleeper exist in the UK market, there doesn’t seem to be a special name for them—not yet, at least (although a warm all-in-one intended for outdoor use is often known as a pram suit). In North America, though, extraordinary diversity exists in the naming of both the ordinary footed one-piece and the warmer alternatives, and in this update we are publishing footie, (usually used either in plural or attributively as footie pyjamas, footie set, etc.). Also on our radar, in a similar vein: footsies, footed pyjamas, stretchsuit, bunny suit, Dr. Dentons (after a well-known manufacturer of such a garment), and the somewhat nightmarish image conjured by walking blanket and walking sleeper.  (If you really want to disappear down the rabbit hole of babywear terminology, see this article. And if you can provide evidence of potato mashers meaning an all-in-one garment for a baby, we want to hear from you!)

Differences between British English and American English account for a number of other entries in the most recent update. A diaper cake 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 .  Burp cloth (American English), however, does have a worldwide equivalent in muslin, both describing a cloth used to wipe up regurgitated milk when feeding or winding (British English) or burping (chiefly American English) a baby. As linguist and observer of British and American English differences Lynne Murphy points out in the comments beneath this article, what is also interesting about this pair is that the American term describes the function of this piece of cloth, the British the material it is made of. Perhaps this reflects the British habit of putting these squares of fabric to a thousand other conceivable uses, from impromptu nursing cover to emergency nappy in the event of poomageddon.

And so we come to the poo(p) words, an essential part of any new parent’s vocabulary. Our Mumsnet respondents had no fewer than 13 different suggestions for words describing an explosion of infant faeces of epic proportions and poonami alone was put forward by 16 different Mumsnet users. This is testimony, perhaps, to the daily reality for any parent of babies or small children— that the fearful devastation wrecked by an infant’s bowels requires not just a cast-iron stomach but also a formidable sense of humour. Whilst, individually, none of these terms yet make the grade as far as OED’s inclusion policy goes, together they form a noteworthy lexical set—remarkable not only for its relative size but also because the words in it are unusually similar in formation. More than half of the suggestions we received of this type are formed as blends, usually created by combining a colloquial term for faeces with part of a word denoting some kind of disaster of monumental proportions. (Of wider interest: these ‘disaster’ words seem to have become established as components of more general trivial or topical portmanteaux in recent years—we have examples of snowpocalypse, carmageddon, climageddon, and sharknado in our files, to mention but a few). Hence: the aforementioned poomageddon, the mix-and-match poonami and tsunappy, and then poosplosion, apoocalypse, poopcasso, shituation, and shitastrophy. And there are more lurking on Twitter—craptastrophy, poonado, shizzard… You get the picture. The most widespread of these (and the Mumsnet favourite), poonami, dates back to early 2008 on Twitter, although apparently not in a parenting context—user @wasoverheard tweeted “I’m not even going to tell you about the ‘poonami’ I experienced yesterday”—and lately has crept into a few published parenting manuals. This isn’t the end of the story for this fertile set of words: they’re on our tracking list and we’ll be watching to see how they develop over the next months and years. Check back for these and other parenting words, like sharenting and threenager—and let us know your suggestions for pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting words, particularly those that are well established but not yet in the OED.

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.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.