Welcome to the third of three posts on synonyms for child. The first & second posts can be found here & here.
In 1725 the Scottish word tot, little child, became an English word. It appears to have come from either the word totter, OR an Old Norse term for dwarf, OR a Danish term of endearment that translates to thumb-child.
In early Renaissance Western England and the northern Midlands there was a word for ragged garment. It was related to the word for cloak. This word morphed by about 1500 to mean beggar’s child. The word? Brat.
Back in the 1300s, urchin meant hedgehog (it still does in Shropshire, Yorkshire & Cumbria). Apparently the word urchin was used pejoratively to refer to those who looked different. Etymonline tells us these unfortunates ranged “from hunchbacks to goblins to bad girls.” By the 1500s, we English speakers landed on a new meaning for urchin: raggedly clothed youngster.
Along similar lines, the word nipper appeared in 1530s to refer to a pickpocket. One can imagine how the chaos, poverty, & 16-hour work days of parents during the industrial revolution might have inspired nipper to shift its meaning to small boy (by 1859).
Friend Bruce West asked about the terms of affection sometimes applied to children, punkin & punkinhead. These spellings, considered to be “vulgar American English,” appeared in 1806 & seem to have come from the 1780s term pumpkinhead, which referred to a person whose hair was “cut short all around.” Pumpkin, as in squash, showed up in English in 1640 from Middle French.
Bambino came to English in 1761 from the Italian word for baby, the diminutive form of bambo, the Italian word for simple. Interestingly, in 1919 the word bambino gave birth to another English word that originally meant simple fellow, the word bimbo. Only one year later, bimbo picked up the additional meaning, floozy.
Any thoughts about all these childish words? Please say so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.