The Illegitimate Word

The AP Stylebook issued an update yesterday. I subscribe to their online edition and refer to it frequently for professional writing assignments (unlike this blog which follows no established style book and is often just a random stream of badly formed words coming from my brain).

I was struck by one of the updates. Here it is for your reference:

“illegitimate
Do not refer to the child of unmarried parents as illegitimate. If it is pertinent to the story, at all, use an expression such as whose mother was not married, whose parents were not married or was born to an unmarried teenager.”

Thoughts? Do we like this new language or not?

I appreciate the suggestion “if it is pertinent, at all” but still struggle with the possible need to call out the marital status of a parent or the fact that the parent is a teenager. Wondering when that information would be pertinent?

10 Thoughts.

  1. Thinking back to something you’ve expressed Suz, ‘WHY do we need labels at all’?? Labels are for soup cans. I don’t understand the pertinence at all, it’s irrelevant IMHO.

  2. I think that it’s less about the parents regarding the word “illegitimate” and more about the child. I looked up the synonyms of illegitimate and found – unlawful, illegal, illicit, dishonest, and criminal. I can’t believe that any child would ever be considered one of those words, especially because they didn’t have a say in the details of their conception. I prefer the new language as opposed to the old language for just this reason, including the “if it is pertinent, at all” statement.

    • Agreed. I am still challenged by the need to state the child of “unmarried parents” or a “teenage parent” or an “unmarried teen parent”. Such statements would infer to me a certain of bias that may not be at all relevant to a story. Do they say child of black parents? (Sadly, I suppose they do). I find in too many cases the descriptors are for sensationalism and provocative reasons rather than add any real value.

    • If the parents were married, the kids wouldnt be illegit. Or are you commenting on my statements about still referencing an unmarried mother? (I suspect that is what you mean and I agree). It only meant to suggest that the parents are somehow not as good of parents as they could have been if they were married.

      • Exactly! I am saying that there is NO place in our society for qui lifers such “illegitimate”. It no longer matters if you were borne to a single mother or whether your parents were married ( the moment of your birth. With the divorce rate in this country being around 50% there a lot of kids who are being raised by single mothers, so what does a mother’s marital status have to do with ANYTHING at all in this day and age? All kids are legitimately real humans deserving of common decency and respect no matter the marital status of their mothers…it is just so Catholic school and dark ages…people need to wake up and smell the reality of modern american life.

  3. “use an expression such as whose mother was not married, whose parents were not married or was born to an unmarried teenager.”

    why does it offend me when they say “whose mother was not married”? does this assume that the child’s father IS married? or is it assumed the mother alone is responsible for the child’s existence and upbringing?

    “was born to an unmarried teenager”? again, where is the sperm thrower in all this? and does this seem to assume that all unmarried mothers are teenagers?

    this assumption that women are solely responsible for procreation and child rearing is so deeply ingrained in our society that even someone such as Sunday, who was decrying the use of the word “illegitimate” to describe children, was focused on “single mothers” and the mother’s marital status.

    i apologize if i offend anyone, don’t mean to. i was an unwed teen mother back in the 70’s. i was told i could not get child support for my child because i had never been married to my child’s father. perhaps if i had been able to get child support for my children, i would not have lost the second one to adoption. so this is a sore subject with me. (and no, i was not being irresponsible. my second child was conceived while on birth control, but this was before the connection between antibiotics and BC failure was made)

  4. This is yet another prime example of the powerful relationship between emotion and language. As an unwed pregnant teenager in 1969, who had twelve years of a Catholic education under her belt, the thought of having my child enter the world with the label “bastard” permanently attached was extremely upsetting to me. The traditional solution of a “shotgun” marriage was not an option in my home state due to the refusal of parental consent. So I convinced my boyfriend to go to a state where the legal age was 18 in order to find a judge to marry us for the sole purpose of legitimacy. The marriage was a deeply guarded secret and when we were able to get married later on everyone who knew us thought it was our first marriage. We never did tell either set of parents.
    Years later, I still had such strong negative feelings about the word “bastard” that I initially refused to join Bastard Nation. It was only after talking to my daughter, who persuaded me to donate $100.00 to the organization, that I changed my mind and eventually became a member.
    So no, I am not in favor of this new language as a replacement of the old language. The birth of a child needs to reported as the birth of a child. Period. Marital status is irrelevant.

  5. Agree with dumping the use of illegitimate when referring to a child. Activities can be legitimate or illegitimate, but not human beings. Also agree that a descriptor of this type is never pertinent. Reminds me of the birth/first/natural mother discussion. We are mothers, period. There are occasions where it’s “pertinent” for clarification. When I tell people about my book, I say it’s about my reunion with the son I gave up for adoption when I was a teenager.

    Gail, as for Bastard Nation, I believe they chose that name was for shock value, modeled after Queer Nation. And it works.

  6. Wow, archaic discrimination against the innocent. I don’t like this language at all. Why should a child of unmarried or teenaged parents have any reference made to him or her at all? He is a child period. Just intimating that there is a need to categorize the child or refer to him/her in any separate way is nauseating.

    My parents were not married when I was conceived. I knew at a young age that I was “conceived in sin.” I remember hearing the church’s view expressed as “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons.” I felt doomed knowing this and by age 9, I was suicidal. I felt that God himself had labeled me as less. It wasn’t really my parents or relatives saying this to me in words, just society’s attitudes in general and the whispers I heard about other people’s illicit misfortunes in church. My parents got married before I was born, thus, very few ever knew about the deep, dark secret I felt I harbored. What I’m saying is: I felt labelled just by attitudes exhibited towards others of “my kind”. I bore the burden of the supposedly evil acts of my parents in a most unexpected way.

    All of this is laughable to me now, though I still see it as unjust. Every baby comes to the world in exactly the same way, through the biologically driven, natural act of sex. Without prejudice to situation, timing, age, or marital status, babies are conceived at the rate of more than 4.1 per every second of every day on average. It’s about perspective. How many of these do you think are conceived in perfect circumstances worldwide? How many of the 353,015 babies born every day are responsible for the circumstances of their birth, be it good or bad? Zero. It’s time to set aside such primitive attitudes about ourselves and our children. If you want to quote any bible verses and apply it to any of our children or ourselves, it should be: All (wo)men were created equally.

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