The other afternoon, as people were pondering the breakup of Arnold Schwarzenegger's marriage, I found myself thinking about the origins of the ubiquitous but complicated term love child. If the word was once slangy or tabloidish, news organizations ranging from CBS News to the Washington Post now seem to consider it a straightforward descriptive term, as if it were the Standard English word for a child born outside of marriage. So it seems like a fruitful time to untangle its vexed etymology.
The word itself dates back to at least 1805. In The Nuns of the Desert, Eugenia De Acton writes of a "Miss Blenheim" being "what in that country is denominated a love-child," and the term appears again a little later in Percy Bysshe Shelley's Posthumous Poems. Another important touchstone in the word's history is, of course, the 1968 Diana Ross and the Supremes song "Love Child," with the truly transcendent rhyme "Love child never meant to be/ Love child scorned by society."
Of course we can't know exactly what went on between Schwarzenegger and his housekeeper, but I am quite sure that most of the pundits and commentators and gossips who are using the phrase love child do not think that it was "love." The ironies or elaborate commentaries within the phrase are fraught; the word love in this instance is in fact communicating the idea of sex, of unmade beds, of hotel rooms in the afternoon. Most people are not actually thinking, when they utter the phrase, "Oh how nice. A love child!"
When people say that they feel sorry for Schwarzenegger's "children," or when he himself asks the media to "respect my wife and children through this extremely difficult time," I am fairly sure that they mean his legitimate children, and that no one is being asked to respect his love child, who is with that pretty little prefix "love" somehow airlifted out of both his father's familial obligations and the general moral concern.
Perhaps the Washington Post editor who chose to use the word love child as a purely descriptive phrase may have thought there was no better term, and he may be right. This may be one of those shadowy instances in which language fails us. Is there another word that does not carry with it some smirking holier-than-thou-ness, some puritanical judgment, some gleeful shades of schadenfreude? "A child born out of wedlock" is clunky, and the word "wedlock" is not exactly au courant.
The cool and technical illegitimate is not very nice; although at first it appears to be a neutral term, a Merriam-Webster detour around the whole messy hullabaloo, it too is freighted with an elaborate moral critique. What, one wonders is more legitimate in 2011 about the children of married people than those of people too busy, distracted, or original to be married?
Since our bigotries are less openly and exuberantly expressed than they were in past decades, they take refuge in subtle, shifting word choices. Love child is definitely more friendly or tactful than the more Shakespearean bastard but it nonetheless cloaks a certain discomfort with the facts. Love child is both tolerant (that is, more tolerant than other terms) and mocking; it contains within it our contradictions; it passes judgment in an ironic way—indirectly, playfully, but also plainly.