The Grammarphobia Blog

Little Shavers

Q: I am a summer associate at a New York law firm and share an office with someone who used the phrase “little shavers” to refer to my kids. (He suggested I take my “little shavers” to a ball game.) I asked him the origin of this expression but he didn’t know where it came from and we can’t find it anywhere. I’m hoping you can help resolve this!

A: The term “shaver” was used to mean a man (or chap or fellow) as long ago as the late 16th century. The phrase “old shaver” (old man) was recorded in the 1590s, and “young shaver” (a youth) occurred as early as 1630, according to several slang dictionaries I consulted. I’m told this was a reference to the male tendency to shave facial hair.

According to the lexicographer Eric Partridge, the term “shaveling” meant a youth because of “the infrequency of his need to shave.” In modern usage, a “shaver” means a child, and is often preceded by “young” or “little.”

I would have guessed that “shaver” was a reference to the kind of wood shaving created by a carving tool or a carpenter’s plane. Not even close!

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