Arnold Schwarzenegger's "love child" and the rise of a bastard phrase.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 24 2011 6:37 PM

"Love Child"

How a bastard phrase went mainstream.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and his family. Click image to expand.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, and their children together

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.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

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!"

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

How Movies Like Contagion and Outbreak Distort Our Response to Real Epidemics

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Everything You Should Know About Today’s Eclipse

An Unscientific Ranking of Really, Really Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 11:51 AM It Seems No One Is Rich or Happy: I Looked
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 23 2014 12:02 PM Delightfully Awkward Studio Action Shots of Players, Used on Early Baseball Cards
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 12:01 PM Who Is Constantine, and Should You Watch His New Show?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.