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A wonderful image of a working mother perhaps literally performing acrobatics and juggling work and motherhood! Picasso: Ink and watercolour on paper, 1905, Circus Artist and Child

When I was in labour with my first daughter, Imogen, my mother waiting anxiously to learn of her arrival, managed to knit for her a jacket complete with hood! As I waited anxiously a week ago for this same daughter to give birth thirty years later, I did not knit. Instead I mulled over baby words- not the words all too typically given in foolish lists to young learners, rather my focus was on words associated with babies and their morphologies and etymologies. Below the fruit of my labour!!


The word baby is comprised of two morphemes; the free base element <babe> and the diminutive suffix in this case <y>. Other examples of this diminutive suffix <-y>  is seen in puppy and bunny– a pet name for a rabbit or earlier a squirrel. The OED discusses the forms <-ie> and <-y> as common in forming pet names- for example Sally, Betty although <-ie> seems to be the more frequent after Scottish usage: grannie, mousie, dearie. The O.E.D. does state that the two words considered to have <-y> as a diminutive suffix to be:‘ baby (late 14th c.) and puppy (late 15th c.). Baby may perhaps be coupled daddy and mammy, although the evidence for these is not earlier than the 16th century; the pairs babe and baby, dad and daddy, mam and mammy, may have resulted from different phonetic reductions of original reduplicated forms.’

I was surprised to discover that baby is comparatively new to the English language, attested  only from 1440. Babe is older by forty seven years, attested, according to the OED, in 1393. The OED notes that the origin of babe is uncertain and possibly a reduplicated syllable /ba/ that is supposedly imitative of the first sounds produced by infants. This imitative first sound of infant vocalisation is thought also to underlie the word babble. The other etymological suggestion is that babe is perhaps an abbreviated form of baban – although the attestation of this is ‘scanty’  suggesting that this word baban was more colloquial, spoken rather than written. Baban, now archaic, is first attested from 1225 and the origin too is uncertain.

The word baby was broader in use applying to a child of any age, although now the main sense refers to the very young. Of course it is frequently heard as a term of endearment between couples and is ever present in popular songs. This use as a term of endearment was attested once in 1684 and then became more frequent only from 1862 as indicated in the OED citations.  Babe too has altered applying first to a child of any age. Occasionally today it applies to a very young child, although this is literary, the OED notes,  found in phrases such as ‘babe in arms’, ‘newborn babe’.  Since 1911 it has been used as a term of endearment, and then extended to any attractive woman since 1915. Later again, in 1973, it  extended further to refer to a sexually attractive man.


“First the infant mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms!”( As you Like It, Act II , sc.VII, Shakespeare)

The root of infant can be traced to Latin fari to speak which comes from an even older etymon P.I.E. *bha- to speak, to tell or say. From this ancient root came Latin fama present participle of fari to speak and so words such as fable– a story told, fame– spoken about, fate– that which is spoken or foretold.  Infant with its negative prefix <in-> entered English from the French word enfant in 1382 and therefore literally is one who is not speaking.

The morphemes however take my breath away- <in+f+ant>!!  Dear reader, I hear you gasp! A single letter morpheme? Latin <-ari>  indicates the infinitive form of the verb fari and  the Latinate <-ari> typically is shed in English.The suffix <-ant> can be either agent or instrumental and while from Latin stem -entem, -āntem, -ēntem, words such as infant when adopted directly from French in their French forms, the suffix for a while became <-aunt> then later changed to <-ant>. I found forms of infant in the Middle English period spelled as enfaunt, infaunt even in the 16th century as inphant. At one time infant referred to unborn babies- now it mainly refers to the very young. However, it is still associated with the youngest children in terms of schooling and can have negative connotations as infantile, applied to anyone whose  actions are considered immature.

Fauntekin and fauntelet

I discovered the delightful words fauntekin and fauntelet, as I explored the words applying to the very young or newborns in the O.E.D’s  Historical Thesaurus. I wondered whether the <-aunt> suffix was present in these words: fauntekin– a little child, an infant , attested in 1377 and fauntelet also a little child, 1393.  Both words have  diminutive suffixes  <-kin> and <let>- droplet, piglet, rivulet (and there lies the possibility of another post just around diminutive suffixes!) Faunt existed as a free base element, now faded from regular usage and is the aphetic form of Old French enfaunt, enfant.

The term ‘aphetic’ I discovered  was coined in 1880 by J.H.A. Murray founding editor of the O.E.D. and refers to the language change process where there is a gradual loss of a short unaccented vowel in the initial position as seen in the change from esquire to squire, amend to mend. The words formed in this manner are called aphetic forms.  The words faunt, fauntekin and fauntelet share the root Latin fari, the morphological structure of these archaic words is <f+aunt+e+kin> and <f+aunt+e+let> with <-aunt>as the suffix allomorph of <-ant> with the <e>  a connecting vowel letter. Ineffable!Fabulous indeed-  oh affable infants!

A matrix merely hinting at  some of the words related to this base from the Latin root fari, to speak.

A matrix merely hinting at some of the words related to this base from the Latin root fari, to speak.


Older than fauntekin, fauntelet, infant and babe is the compound word chrisom-child of 1275. This  originally referred to ‘ A child in its chrisom-cloth; a child in its first month; an innocent babe.’ You may, like me, wonder about the chrisom element- a free base?  In fact chrism was oil anointed at an infant’s baptism and chrisom  /ˈkrɪzəm/ a disyllabic pronunciation of this  according to the O.E.D .Chrism has been in English since 1000 A.D. and referred to the oil mixed with balm used in the sacraments in Catholic and later in Anglican services. As a religious word it was adopted directly from Latin into Old English and initially spelled as crisma. Later the <ch> digraph was added to reflect its Latinate root which was a transliteration of Greek χρίειν: khriein: to anoint. Cream too is related and there is of course more…

Digging around in the OED I could not initially find  any evidence of Greek roots in the family of <chrism> <chrisom> until I linked it with Christ.  The denotation of the title Christ is ‘the anointed’. Below the OED etymological entry:

‘Old English crist = Old Saxon and Old High German crist , krist (Old High German also christ ), < Latin Chrīstus , from Greek Χρῑστός Christ, noun use ofχρῑστός anointed ( < χρίειν to anoint), a translation of Hebrew māshīa χ, Messiah n., ‘anointed’, more fully m’shīa χ yahweh the Lord’s Anointed. This word and its derivatives and cognates (including chrism n. and its derivatives) were very rarely (and perhaps only accidentally) spelt with ch- in Middle English, but this has been the regular fashion since 1500; in French it began in the preceding century.’

Chrisom also referred to the ‘white robe, put on a child at baptism as a token of innocence: originally, perhaps merely a head-cloth, with which the chrism was covered up to prevent its being rubbed off. In the event of the child’s death within a month from baptism, it was used as a shroud: otherwise it, or its estimated value, was given as an offering at the mother’s purification’(O.E.D.)


Child is  one of the oldest of the words associated with babies. It is a single morpheme- a free base element comprised of four phonemes :/tʃʌɪld/ with the digraph <ch> as the initial grapheme. It is from the Old English root cild when it denoted unborn, fetus, newborn. This etymon goes even further back to Proto Germanic *kiltham. The O.E.D. tells us that Old English cild was probably  cognate with Gothic kilþei ‘womb’ and  inkilþō ‘pregnant woman’ . The suggestion is that these share the same Indo-European root as  Gothic kalbo calf and classical Latin glēba, glaeba “clod, lump of earth”. There is an hypothesized link to Sanskrit jaṭhara ‘belly’, ‘womb’, although the OED cautions the dictionary reader that this link is  ‘uncertain and disputed’. There are no living relatives to child in other Germanic languages, Ayto states, although there are suggestions of connections to rounded bald heads as seen in ‘Old Icelandic kollr rounded tip, bald head and Old Swedish kulder , kolder (Swedish kull ), Old Danish kuldær , koldær , plural (Danish kuld )’. However, rather surprisingly there are no other relatives  in the Germanic languages including the German word kind .

The plural form of child and its slow accretion of suffixes is fascinating. In Old English cild was unchanged in the plural form rather like sheep so cild~ cild until about 975 (Online Etymology Dictionary) when the plural form became cildru. The OED discusses the process of change to cild~cildru~cildra to evolve into the double plural form children with the additional suffix <-en>. This is comparable to the development of brethren, plural of brother.

Bairn attested as early as 830 is from the Old English infinitive form beran to bear’ and is according to the OED a common Germanic word in : Old English as bearn. Cognates include Old Frisian bern, Old Saxon, Old High German, Middle High German, Gothic, Old Norse, Danish, Swedish barn, (Middle Dutch baren) This came from Germanic *barno-(m),which ultimately came from the Proto-Indo-European root *bher– give birth and carry. This ancient root has ‘spawned’ many words in English from both Germanic and non Germanic roots- Latin ferre, Greek pherein to bear, to carry. Many words in English retain this sense of carrying from these roots: barrow, bier,  berth, burden and perhaps even brim (Ayto).

Birth, born, borne and bairn all convey the sense of ‘giving birth.’ Intriguingly bairn meaning a small child was lost in German and Dutch and in southern English ‘ where the modern representation of Old English bearn would have been ‘bern’… or ‘ barn’. In fact, berne survived in the south to 1300, barn still survives in northern English, and was used by Shakespeare’  Bairn , the OED states is of the Scottish form used occasionally in literature.

Wenchel of Old English origins attested  c890, is another early word for a child and has done double duty both as child of either sex; as well as a servant or slave; or a common woman’. Etymology Online notes that ‘Old English wencel is probably related to wancol which has a meaning of  “unsteady, fickle, weak,” from Proto-Germanic*wankila- . This sense of helplessness and weakness is seen its cognates – Old Norse vakr “child, weak person,” Old High German wanchal”fickle”. All these words derive from Proto Indo European *weng- “to bend, curve” .

Baby words indicating smallness

The focus on the attribute of smallness to words applied to the very young is seen in many of the words and is often emphasized by diminutive suffixes as mentioned earlier with fauntelet and fauntekin but also:
tenderling attested in 1587, childling 1648, bratling 1652 – from brat which from its attestation in c1500 was negative in connotation and denoted a beggar’s child ‘A child, so called in contempt,’ states Johnson. In 16th and 17th c. it is sometimes used without contempt, though nearly always implying insignificance; weanie 1786, babelet 1856. However , a dab attested in 1833, a dot from 1859 and liddly a derivative of little was attested in 1929, emphasize smallness.
Baby words indicating the actions of babies

The actions of the newborn also lend themselves to the names applied to babies: sucker 1384, now archaic referred to a child at the breast, milksop 1500 although more frequently applied to the timid, weak and indecisive from 1390s (Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale:’ , 3100: Allas..that euere I was shape To wedden a milksop or a coward ape.’  Nurseling was attested in 1605 and teatling in 1631, hoppet 1695. A trudgeon was a nonce word used in 1814 to allude to the slow walk of the young ‘one who trudges, a toddling child’. Nestler followed later in 1866 and toddler is attested in 1890 from toddle : To walk or run with short unsteady steps, as a child just beginning to walk, an aged or invalid person; also said of a similar walk or run of any animal. (O.E.D.) Snork attested in 1941 of Australian, New Zealand slang is imitative indicating the snorting sounds made by the young baby.

Plant and animal metaphors

I found one example of a plant metaphor for babies in the Latinate flosculet used in 1648 . Small creatures, however, create popular metaphors for the young such as mite from 1853. Kid has been used to refer to children, and especially  young children from the 1590s.The OED states this term was ‘originally low slang, but by the 19th c. frequent in familiar speech.’ Following much later and adding diminutive suffixes came kidlet, kiddy, and kidling all from 1899. Another creature metaphor perhaps more negative or maybe merely reflecting  wry observation was pap-hawk attested from 1475 now disappeared. Perhaps this word refers to a baby’s rapacious consuming of milk from the breast.

Yearnling  <yearn+ling> is another word I discovered for a baby. This is a nonce word ( another term coined by James Murray of words used only the once in a specific occasion or in a particular text) Note the Old English suffix <-ling> I thought to be diminutive.  However, not always so. Read Online Etymology Dictionary for  a more detailed explanation of how this suffix is a possible fusion of two elements from <le> and <-ing>. In Old English this suffix indicated a person or thing associated with or concerned with the base element. In the Middle English period this suffix continued to be used as it was in Old English yet often in a negative or contemptuous sense such as vainling, worldling, groundling, earthling. It was more common to be diminutive if of Norse origins. Yet as this word is for the nonce coined by Charles Lamb, it may not be negative but convey a meaning of a longed for baby.

And below baby Nathaniel, inspiration of this post born on Jan 31st. We say all the fireworks in the sky on this evening and every year from now on are in celebration of his birth! Welcome to the world Nathaniel!