Talking About Young People

By Maeve Maddox

Many terms exist to describe children of various ages, all of them having different connotations.

The messages of journalists, politicians, merchants, professional educators, and social commentators are often slanted by the terms they choose to describe children. For example, politicians who may usually refer to children as kids are careful to use the words child and children in their important speeches. Apparently, child evokes a more tender response in the listener than kid.

Professional educators, who once distinguished between the words pupil and student, now refer to all school children as students.

Any word that describes a child is going to carry some emotional charge, but some are more heavily weighted than others.

Here are some fairly neutral words to describe young people under the age of 21:
baby
infant
toddler
child
boy
girl
youngster
juvenile
adolescent
minor

The following words convey more specific images and appeal to different emotions:
tot
tyke
little one
preschooler
teenager
teen
preteen
student
young man
young lady
young adult
waif
urchin
brat
rug rat
guttersnipe

In the past, the word youth was a useful term often seen in news stories with the meaning of “a young man between boyhood and mature age.” For example, “Youth Robs Liquor Store.” Recently, I’ve seen the word used to describe a three-year-old who drowned.

Finally, there’s the word kid. As a word for the young of a goat, kid has been in the language at least since 1562; possibly since 1200. The OED documents kid, “a child, especially a young child,” from the 17th century, noting that it originated as “low slang,” but by the 19th century had become common in familiar speech.

Nowadays, kid is used in the most formal contexts, from the speech and writing of professional educators to the naming of children’s clinics. The word’s elevation to the status of an acceptable synonym for child may have something to do with its similarity to German Kind (child); after all, English is a Germanic language. However, despite its ubiquity as a generic term for child, the word kid can carry negative connotations that prevent it from being acceptable in every context.

Related post: “I Hate ‘Kids”

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12 Responses to “Talking About Young People”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I think that the following is absolutely awful:
    “Professional educators, who once distinguished between the words pupil and student, now refer to all school children as students.”
    The word “student” should be reserved for those in high school and above. The younger ones are “pupils.”

    The same holds in German in which the younger ones are referred to as “Schuler” and the ones in the gymnasium, college, or university are called “Student”.

    A “kindergarten student”? That is absolutely absurd.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    So many writers and speakers have taken to a refusal to use the words “boy” and “girl”. They refer to a group of five male youths as “children” or “kids”, whereas the word “boys” fits perfectly. A similar group of young females are not referred to as “girls”.

    I think that somehow those writers and speakers believe that the words “boy” and “girl” date back to the age of slavery and servitude. Well, that isn’t so. Back then, the uses of “boy” and “girl” were misuses, and it is fair not to dispose of those misuses.

    I have pointed out that students in college should be referred to as “college men” and “college women” and NOT as “kids”, as is heard all too often on TV in America. The latter usage is simply ignorant. Maybe the problem is mostly in the American South, which is where I have lived for the past decade.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Correction: I meant to type: “it is fair to dispose of those misuses.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    So many people do not think of English as being a Germanic language. It is Germanic in most of its grammar. However, taking into consideration grammar, pronunciation, and everything else, I say that English is a HYBRID between the Germanic languages, Old French, and Medieval French, with some Latin and Greek stirred in for some seasoning.
    I think that the fact that English is a hybrid is what gives it its essential strength as a language. The same goes for other kinds of hybrids such as hybrid corn (the American and Canadian kind), certain kinds of agricultural products (such as apples), and hybrid breeds of cattle and horses.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, I meant to include “vocabulary” in one of my hybrid features of English. D.A.W.

  • Roberta B.

    Under the new Affordable Care Act (ACA) (aka Obamacare), children are defined as up to 26 years old for the purpose of coverage under their parents’ health insurance. I’m not so sure this was adopted to cover college age students (really? 26-year old college students?!) as the lawmakers claim, but to cover the kids who already have kids but no spouse. All laws have a basis in reason, right?

    PS – Now that DWT is going subscription, I’ll have to give it a thought. It has been a useful diversion for those of us who work alone and independently (e.g., in home offices) researching, writing reports, transcribing medical documents (Bluebird?), retired people with no one else to talk to (DAW?), etc. If I don’t subscribe right away, thanks to all for an interesting blog. I’ll take odds that you won’t see DAW taking up so much real estate under the new subscription arrangement which might actually expand the discussion. However, as I’ve said before…

    @DAW – Now is the time to start your own blog. On the positive side, it looks like DWT Pro can help set you up. On the negative side, you’ll still have access to a platform for unlimited bloviating and clutter privileges for discussion of the Daily Tip. That, alone, might discourage me from subscribing. I’ll wait and see.

    To the DWT team, thanks, again!

  • Maeve Maddox

    Roberta B.,
    No need to abandon us. The complete daily article will still be available to readers on the site, and readers can continue to participate in our jolly discussions.

  • Heather

    I have to take issue with your description of “girl” as being acceptable to describe females under the age of 21. At 18, girls should be referred to as “women.” If someone can vote and serve in the military, she should be afforded the respect of being called a “woman” and not a “girl.”

    Not sure how the discussion on the ACA helps illuminate anything on grammar and word choices . . .

    Thanks for the helpful columns.

  • Roberta B.

    @Heather – ….because the ACA uses the word “children” (aka “young people” and the topic of this post) in the most absurd way. The following came directly from the infamous website Healthcare.gov: “If a [health insurance] plan covers children, they can be added to or kept on a parent’s health insurance policy until they turn 26 years old.
    Children can join or remain on a parent’s plan EVEN IF [my emphasis] they are:
    • married
    • not living with their parents
    • attending school
    • not financially dependent on their parents
    • eligible to enroll in their employer’s plan”
    So, I was wrong about the spouse part which makes it an even more absurd way to define children for the purpose of entitlement to a benefit.

    @Maeve – Thanks for letting me know. I misunderstood the notice which says: “Starting next Monday, the free email subscription will carry only an excerpt of each article.” So, I’ll be sure to go directly to the DWT website to keep up-to-date……and comment if something strikes me!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hi, Roberta,
    In the Affordable Care Act, the word “children” is used in the sense of “offspring”. My father is still alive, so I am still his child.
    As for college students who are 24 to 26 years old, I have taught lots of those, especially the ones who had spent some years in the military or naval services before they had decided to become civilians again and go to college.
    A good thing about these students was that while they had been in the service, they had learned a lot of self-discipline, and that benefitted them a lot.
    D.A.W.

  • Roberta B.

    Hi DAW – Yes. I thought about the actual term for “child” before commenting or responding because even at my advanced age I recognize that I’m the child of my parents (both still living). Aren’t we both so lucky! Also, the language below the area I quoted on that website does refer to “adult children.” I’m also aware that there are young people in their mid-20s who are students (e.g., veterans on the GI bill) as you mention; some have been my own relatives. In any case, what I find shameless are the semantics and convoluted definitions that lawmakers are allowed to employ. Except for the seriously handicapped, what honest person would adopt a law mandating a health and safety benefit of an adult to apply to an adult child (able to be married, able to have children of their own, financially able to live and work independently, etc.)? I’m not talking about succession of private property rights, private legacy, or something legitimately earned. That’s different. We’re discussing the meaning of words for “children,” and I find that the way it is applied in this social program (a financial burden or obligation carried by society over all) as devious and bizarre.

  • Matt

    I agree with Heather – females over 18 should be referred to as women and not “girls”. Males over 18 aren’t referred to as “boys”. I also find it irritating myself when 18 and 19-year old women and men are referred to as “teenagers” on news broadcasts and newspaper articles – at 18 they are adults and should be referred to as “men” or “women”.

    And something that makes me cringe is the term “young lady”. “Lady” isn’t even the true equivalent to “man” but the counterpart of “gentleman”. To my ears condescendingly calling a girl or young woman “young lady” sounds so genteel and snobby and the continual use of “lady” in contexts where man is just “man” suggests that people find the word “woman” rude or sounding derogatory in certain contexts.

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