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

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

I Wrote a Novel Envisioning a Nigerian Space Program. Then I Learned Nigeria Actually Has One.

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 22 2014 9:39 AM Adrian Peterson Has a Terrible Contract, and Cutting Him Would Save the Vikings a Lot of Money
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 22 2014 9:12 AM What Is This Singaporean Road Sign Trying to Tell Us?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.