The Grammarphobia Blog

Here’s looking at you, kid

Q: How do you feel about the use of “kids” instead of “children”? It upsets me, especially when the context is serious, as in how many “kids” were killed in some incident. It almost seems as if “children” is going out of fashion.

A: You don’t have to worry about the fate of “children.” Both “kids” and “children” are alive and well, with billions of hits each in Google searches.

We use the two words a lot on our blog (232 hits for “children,” 135 for “kids”), but we agree with you that “kids” may be out of place in serious or formal contexts.

Why, you may ask, does “kids” show up so often on a relatively serious blog like ours? Well, we try to keep our writing casual here, even when we deal with scholarly issues of language.

Half of the eight standard dictionaries we’ve checked describe “kid” as informal when used to mean a child. Even the dictionaries that don’t use that label generally illustrate the usage with informal examples.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “kid” for “a child, esp. a young child” as slang. However, the OED cautions that its entry for “kid” was first published in 1901 and “has not yet been fully updated.”

When the noun “kid” showed up in Middle English around 1200, it referred to a young goat, a sense that it still has.

The OED says English adopted the word from a Scandinavian source (in Old Icelandic, for example, a kidh was a young goat).

The earliest example of the word in the dictionary is from the Ormulum, a collection of homilies explaining biblical texts. The OED dates it at around 1200, but adds a question mark. Other sources say it was written sometime before 1200.

Here’s the citation, which was transcribed by the lexicographer R. W. Burchfield: “the firrste callf. the firrste lamb. the firrste kide. & swillke” (we’ve replaced the letter thorn here with “th”; swillke meant “such”).

Oxford says the use of “kid” for a human child showed up in the 1600s. The dictionary adds that it was “originally low slang, but by the 19th c. frequent in familiar speech.”

The earliest OED example of the new usage is from The Old Law, a tragicomedy by Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Philip Massinger: “Ime old you say / Yes parlous old Kidds and you mark me well.”

(The play was published in 1656, but it’s believed to have been written several decades earlier.)

The next example is from Collin’s Walk Through London and Westminster, a 1690 poem by Thomas D’Urfey: “And at her Back a Kid that cry’d, / Still as she pinch’d it, fast was ty’d.”

In the late 1800s, the noun “kid” came to be used colloquially to mean a young man or woman.

And here’s a 20th-century example, from The Brass Cupcake, a 1950 novel by John D. Macdonald: “I spoke out of the corner of my mouth. ‘We can’t talk here, kid.’ ”

When the verb showed up in the early 15th century, it meant to give birth to goats—in the words of the OED, to “bring forth a kid or kids.”

The dictionary’s first example is from The Master of Game (circa 1425), by Edward, Duke of York: Men shulde leue hem þe femels … into þe tyme þat þei haue kiddede.”

About four centuries later, the verb came to mean to “hoax, humbug, try to make (one) believe what is not true,” according to the OED.

The first Oxford example is from Lexicon Balatronicum: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pick Pocket Eloquence (1811), by Francis Grose and Hewson Clarke:

Kid, to coax or wheedle … To amuse a man or divert his attention while another robs him.”

The earliest example in the OED for the verb used in the sense of to joke with or tease is from George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman: “Garn! youre kiddin.”

And here’s an example from the play that we’ve found: “Garn! You know why. Course it’s not my business; but you neednt start kiddin me about it.”

Both comments are by Henry (or, as he’d say, ’Enry) Straker, the cockney-speaking chauffeur in the play.

[Note: This post was updated on Jan 31, 2017.]

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