Progeny and Other Offspring

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks for clarification:

Please tell me under which situation I use the word “progeny” and where to use “offspring”, with examples.

English is blessed with numerous words to refer to the product of sexual union; progeny and offspring are only two of them.

The gen in progeny, like the gen in genital, goes back to a Latin word for beget. Progeny, therefore, is a good all-purpose word to describe people, plants, and animals that are the product of sexual reproduction.

Offspring is not so literal a word as progeny; it combines the verb spring with the adverb off. Offspring are what “jump off” from the parent. It has a friendlier, less formal connotation than progeny. Compare, for example,

Mr. and Mrs. Gilbreth brought up their progeny according to strict ideas of efficiency.

Mr. and Mrs. Gilbreth treated their offspring to a day at the beach.

Here’s a list of synonyms that are or have been used with the meaning of progeny:

babies
brood
children
descendants
family
fruit of one’s loins
fruit of one’s womb
heirs
issue
offspring
posterity
progeny
scions
seed
sons and daughters
successors
spawn
young

Like all synonyms, these words have different connotations. We speak of babies, children, family, and sons and daughters when we are talking about people in general.

In matters of law, the words heirs and issue are used with specific legal meaning.

A man’s children are called issue, usually in the sense of children who have a legal right to inherit.

An heir is the person entitled by law to succeed another “in the enjoyment of property or rank.” Prince Charles is referred to as “heir to the British throne,” but according to the OED, legally speaking, he won’t be the heir until his mother dies: nemo est heres viventis, “nobody is a living heir.”

Genealogists talk in terms of descendants. Historians speak of posterity, the people who come after those living in the present:

For it has been wisely said that if the judgment of the time must be corrected by that of posterity, it is no less true that the judgment of posterity must be corrected by that of the time.” –Felix Frankfurter

The horticultural term scion is often used in speaking of the descendants of noble or wealthy families:

Originally built by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a scion of the wealthy Vanderbilt family, the 1909 property [the Vanderbilt Grace hotel] is a vintage Newport mansion that has been restored to its former glory…

In gardening terms, a scion is a slip taken from a tree or other plant and used for grafting. Another gardening word, seed, is also used to mean progeny: Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. –Galatians 3:16.

The expression “fruit of loins/womb” is familiar from the KJ translation of the Bible, as in the greeting of Mary’s cousin Elisabeth:

And she [Elisabeth] spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. –Luke 1:42.

The word brood for children has a warm, motherly connotation. Its figurative use derives from the way a hen sits on her eggs to keep them warm. Indeed, brood is cognate with Middle High German bruot, ‘heat, warmth, hatching, that which is hatched.”

The only word in the list that has an out-and-out negative connotation is spawn. Literally the eggs of aquatic creatures, spawn is used figuratively as both noun and verb to suggest that the progeny spoken of is undesirable.

Because spawn is frequently used to refer to demons, as in “hell-spawn” and “spawn of the devil,” the word has become popular in the world of comics and novels about the forces of good and evil.

As a noun, spawn can refer to any type of progeny that may be seen as potentially as bad as the parent. As a verb, spawn is often used to mean “to create something bad”:

Joblessness, poverty, crime spawn violence
Delinquent Parents Spawn Teenage Criminals
Suburban hazing scandals spawn new criminal offense
Computers Spawn A New Criminal Breed

Some journalists use negative spawn where a word like initiate or even beget would be more appropriate:

Dedicated Leaders Spawn Island Cooperative
Scholar’s research spawns international remembrance effort

The surest way to develop an ear for connotation is to read widely from the English literary canon, a practice that is becoming less frequent among the nominally educated.

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3 Responses to “Progeny and Other Offspring”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Someone has pointed out that there is a huge difference in connotation between:
    1. Mrs. X mothered all of the children of the neighborhood.
    2. Mr. Y fathered all of the children of the neighborhood.
    Can you figure it out?
    D.A.W.

  • Andy Knoedler

    My wife (British) and I (American) always referred to our sons as “sprogs”. I took to the term because it seemed extremely playful and affectionate.

  • venqax

    I regularly refer to my kids as their mother’s spawn. I had no idea it had negative connotations….ok, yes I did.

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