The word “illegitimate” has been in the news of late, with all the hype surrounding a certain Governator. Technically, illegitimate is defined as a child born to parents who were not legally married to each other at the time of birth. Culturally, it’s a slur.
Besides the occasional scandal, illegitimate is not a word we use much in regular conversation. It’s antiquated and it connects two ideas that don’t make sense together. Something that is not legitimate or lawful has nothing to do with the birth of a child. It’s especially true now that a full 40 percent [pdf] of children are born to unmarried parents.
Even the venerable Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style (Oxford University Press) in its decade-old edition noted “the phrase illegitimate children exemplifies the need to sometimes throw over old forms of expression.”
Still, the word persists.
The Post has mostly avoided it, but a sharp-eyed reader saw it in a May 19th photo caption (which now describes the child as “out of wedlock”) and rightly scolded us:
“The term is long past its expiration date; children are not illegitimate. Maybe adults are, but not babies born to unwed parents,” said Carolyn Lauer of Silver Spring in a Letter to the Editor.
Lauer’s point can extend to the other euphemisms looping continually this week, “love-child” being a current favorite.
Children may be created by choice or by accident, happy or not. They may be created in the presence or the absence of a marriage certificate. The responsible parties may raise the child together or not.
There are valid reasons for researchers to define the unions that form a child. But there doesn’t need to be a linguistic hierarchy for the product of that union. There is a beautiful description for every baby born: A child. Best just to stick with that and lose the adjectives.