Is there a noun to refer to a childless person?
April 9, 2005 3:54 AM   Subscribe

Is there a word in English, a noun, that refers to a childless adult? Given the nature of English, there seems like there would be, but if there is, I can't think of it. If there isn't, why not?

A friend of mine and I had a conversation (in Spanish) about this subject. Actually, we were speaking about the flexibility and pragmatism of the English language. Among other things, Spanish speakers really like that in English we often convert nouns into verbs, for example ("email me"). He was surprised when I couldn't think of a word to mean a childless adult, given the societal bias on having children. To tell you the truth I was surprised as well. I'm interested to hear what you think about this.
posted by sic to Writing & Language (48 answers total)
 
barren? Though that has a connotation of infertility.
posted by randomstriker at 4:02 AM on April 9, 2005


i like "libertine" - it doesn't have the meaning you want directly, but you're both free of the slavery of parenthood and, apparently, morally questionable.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:34 AM on April 9, 2005


Barren doesn't work as a noun. Non-breeder or non-parent is all I can think of now, though they too have problems. "Childless adult" sounds best to me.
posted by PY at 4:42 AM on April 9, 2005


Did your friend give you a Spanish word for a childless adult?
posted by davidmsc at 5:02 AM on April 9, 2005


afaik there's no such word in spanish.

i wonder if there's a word in farming terminology somewhere?
posted by andrew cooke at 5:17 AM on April 9, 2005


No, there is no word in Spanish either, but Spanish, at least in Spain, is more tightly controlled by the Real Academia de EspaƱol and so, much like French, expands much more slowly than English. English is much more flexible, which is why we were surprised that it never adopted a term for this.

Any opinons as to why this term is absent in label-happy Anglo cultures? I'm mostly interested in sociological/linguistic explanations, but any observation is welcome.
posted by sic at 5:53 AM on April 9, 2005


I'm also interested in knowing if there is a precise term for this in other languages/cultures.
posted by sic at 5:56 AM on April 9, 2005


well presumably it would have been uncommon unless there was a medical reason, in which case "barren" would have been appropriate. there's no word for "fish without bicycle" either, so maybe you need to explain more clearly why such a word would have been needed/popular?
posted by andrew cooke at 5:58 AM on April 9, 2005


also, you tend to describe things, rather than their absence. "it has seven legs" rather than "it doesn't have zero to 6 or 8 or more legs". there's no single word for not being a grandparent, or for not having siblings (ie "only child"), for example. orphan is an exception, i think, because a human child requires parents (i doubt such a word would exist for, say, sea turtles).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:03 AM on April 9, 2005


A non-childless friend regularly calls us "DINK"s (Double Income No Kids), but that's not really it.
posted by ferociouskitty at 6:14 AM on April 9, 2005


Spinster? Bachelor?
posted by pieoverdone at 6:17 AM on April 9, 2005


Popular culture uses the slang adjective "childfree" to describe a childless adult who chooses not to have children.

I suppose that could somehow be fashioned into a noun.
posted by jeanmari at 6:19 AM on April 9, 2005


yes, until recently spinster and bachelor implied childlessness.

as for married couples without children, there's only the aforementioned "childless"--an adjective.

and for those of you have wandered in old graveyards, childlessness is sometimes memorialised in stone, as when someone dies "without issue"

there, and in old wills and legal documents, acronyms were used to describe childlessness in adults:

d.s.p. (decessit sine prole)-died without children
d.s.p.m. (decessit sine prole masculi)-died without male children
d.s.p.m.s. (decessit sie prole mascula superstita)-died without surviving male children
d.s.pl. (decessit sine prole legitima)-died without legitimate children
posted by subatomiczoo at 6:48 AM on April 9, 2005


Just "non-parent." I've heard it before.
posted by NickDouglas at 6:54 AM on April 9, 2005


Yeah, I think spinster & bachelor were the words for that, because until this century or so (basically, until child labor laws caught up with the industrial revolution), the purpose of marriage was assumed to be reproduction.

But now that "child-free" is popular, we might think a noun would come along... but I think the reason it doesn't is that it isn't all that useful a noun. A noun for an unmarried person tells you something about possibilities - this person is not married - yet - and there may be people in the room interested to know their status. But childlessness is generally either only going to be changed by one person who already knows this (the spouse) or has been specifically chosen as something not to be changed. If the latter, it may have been made a medical decision, and then you could say they're "fixed"...
posted by mdn at 6:56 AM on April 9, 2005


Ateknia is the condition of childlessness.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:55 AM on April 9, 2005


so what would the noun be if you constructed it in the "normal way" from greek(?) roots? atekne?
posted by andrew cooke at 8:03 AM on April 9, 2005


huh. That doesn't seem to distinguish between biologicial creativity and artistic creativity... tekne usually refers to things made through skill or craft.
posted by mdn at 8:08 AM on April 9, 2005


mdn: i really like the notion of the "possibilities" or potential implied in a social tag.

but what about marketing potential?

i'd think that if someday entrepeneurs figure out a way to economically [and maybe ethically] create loads of highly desireable adoptable babies, the marketers will quickly come up with a catchy word to target the childless.
posted by subatomiczoo at 8:12 AM on April 9, 2005


oh. so i'm atechnical? great. :o(
posted by andrew cooke at 8:20 AM on April 9, 2005


I think I have heard the word neuter used for this.
posted by Chuckles at 8:23 AM on April 9, 2005


Spinster and bachelor refer more to adults who never marry (although being childless is also implied), it's not really specific enough to the issue of not having children.


there's no word for "fish without bicycle" either, so maybe you need to explain more clearly why such a word would have been needed/popular?

I don't mean to imply that it "needs" to be popular, it just seems that it would be popular. Traditionally (and perhaps currently) there is something of a stigma attached to not reproducing, to not contributing to the extension of the human race. This stigma is often religious in nature, as some major religions exhort us to "go forth and multiply". Marriage is also often closely tied to reproduction.

English has many nouns that describe people in very specific ways (procrastinator, for example) and as subatomiczoo points out it is a very dynamic language that invents new words or accepts foreign words with little trauma.

I think it is now apparent that the word doesn't currently exist in English. My question is now along the line of why not? I'm looking for opinions, that's all. Oh, and if you guys create a word from Greek or Latin that would be really interesting as well.
posted by sic at 8:40 AM on April 9, 2005


Yeah, I think spinster & bachelor were the words for that, because until this century or so (basically, until child labor laws caught up with the industrial revolution), the purpose of marriage was assumed to be reproduction.

I think that mdn is on to something here.
posted by sic at 8:50 AM on April 9, 2005


By the way I inadvertently marked Andrew's "libertine" answer as best. Is there any way to undo that?

No offense Andrew.
posted by sic at 9:03 AM on April 9, 2005


How about just "adult"? All humans over 18 are adults, and it describes the basic societal/governmental/legal label. You then become a "parent" or "a mother" or "a father" or not, later--those are secondary labels.
posted by amberglow at 9:36 AM on April 9, 2005


I don't think the word you want exists, but if the person is unmarried, you can call him or her a celibate, which will really mean that they aren't married, but which will also carry the implication of childlessness.

I, however, would go with "non-breeder." That, of course, has other implications, as well, but you can ignore them.
posted by anapestic at 10:10 AM on April 9, 2005


in re-reading the answers, i realize that "childless"--the adjective--is also used as a collective substantive, as in "the childless pay taxes too"

so there is an apparent collective noun, but not really one for a single individual.
posted by subatomiczoo at 10:24 AM on April 9, 2005


In some cultures, the equivalent of "virgin" is used for any woman who hasn't given birth. Doesn't quite work in our culture, though, since we've managed to unlink the concepts of sexual activity and reproduction relatively successfully. Celibate has the same problem.

I'm with amberglow -- I wonder why we all find it odd that we don't have a word for the non-modified state of adulthood. I guess you could argue that both ways: either we so thoroughly consider not having children to be the default state that we don't actually need a word for it (so, so doubtful), or that we (as a society) consider it such a transitory state -- i.e., everyone will eventually have children -- that we consider exceptions to that rule covered by the other categories that have already been mentioned, like barren or celibate.

My guess is that we don't really have a non-cutesy (DINKS) or non-concatinated (non-parent) word for it yet because it's a fairly modern phenomenon in post-Greek western culture. Before the advent of reliable birth control and the social acceptability of exclusively homosexual partnerships, childless people were pretty much covered by words like barren, spinster, monk, etc.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 10:24 AM on April 9, 2005


Um, non-concatenated. Spelling is hard.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 10:31 AM on April 9, 2005


I'm with amberglow -- I wonder why we all find it odd that we don't have a word for the non-modified state of adulthood.

Good point. I guess it has to do with the fact that adult is too generic since it also includes parents.

we (as a society) consider it such a transitory state -- i.e., everyone will eventually have children -- that we consider exceptions to that rule covered by the other categories that have already been mentioned, like barren or celibate.

I think this is probably right.


Does anybody know of a specific term for this in any language/culture?
posted by sic at 10:44 AM on April 9, 2005


Celibate has the same problem.

The usage of "celibate" to mean "abstinent" is a recent phenomenon and is to be deplored and resisted wherever possible. A celibate is an unmarried person. It does not, specifically, mean that the person doesn't have children, but it doesn't really mean someone who doesn't have sex.
posted by anapestic at 10:50 AM on April 9, 2005


LittleMissCranky makes a good point. The words "maiden" and "Miss" imply childlessness. To the extent that having children is more relevant for women, it may be the closest word to what you are looking for. Especially historically, when people were less libertine.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 10:50 AM on April 9, 2005


A celibate is an unmarried person. It does not, specifically, mean that the person doesn't have children, but it doesn't really mean someone who doesn't have sex.

Thank you, anapestic. I was really annoyed when my Swiss hotelier (hotelieuse?) wrote "celibataire" on my form. Alas, it was true, but what business was it of hers? Now I don't have to be annoyed!
posted by Aknaton at 12:00 PM on April 9, 2005


I've definitely heard "old maid" used in movies and popular culture specifically to refer to women without children, though I also think it brings with it the connotation of being unmarried. I'm not sure that it would sound right to say someone is a "married old maid". Can't think of a generic one, but Garrison Keillor's Norweigan bachelor farmers always seemed to imply to me that they had no kids. Not as entrenched as "old maid" though, probably because it was seen as much worse for a woman to have no children (that awful view that it was their primary function) than men.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the Greek word translate to something close to "unskilled"? That's funny.
posted by ontic at 12:16 PM on April 9, 2005


There's no real mystery here; English happens to have an adjective (childless) but not an associated noun. This is not an infrequent situation (cf. poor); we simply use a phrase (a poor/childless person).

Ateknia is the condition of childlessness.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:55 AM PST

Yes, in Ancient Greek (and as a borrowed word in English), but we don't want a condition, we want the person having that condition; unfortunately, the Greeks, like ourselves, used an adjective, ateknos (negative prefix a- + teknon 'child').

so what would the noun be if you constructed it in the "normal way" from greek(?) roots? atekne?
posted by andrew cooke at 8:03 AM PST

"Atecnia," but it seems to have been borrowed (briefly, in the 19th century) with the -k- spelling:
1874 JUL. HOWE Sex & Educ. 23 Dr. Clarke sees disease chiefly in American women.. In them are ateknia, agalactia, amazia.

huh. That doesn't seem to distinguish between biologicial creativity and artistic creativity... tekne usually refers to things made through skill or craft.
posted by mdn at 8:08 AM PST


Nope, you're thinking of techne, an entirely different word. (On preview: you too, ontic.)
posted by languagehat at 12:18 PM on April 9, 2005


anapestic: Regardless of whether you use celibate to mean unmarried or not sexually active, my point is largely the same. It is no longer practical to absolutely equate either sexual activity or marriage with inevitable child-bearing.

However, since the OED gives the definition of celibate as 1. abstaining from marriage and sexual relations for religious reasons 2. having or involving no sexual relations, I would argue that the English word certainly connotes abstinence from sexual activity, regardless of the strict denotation of the Latin root. I would also argue that the extent to which the sexual abstinence component had previously been excluded from the definition in post-Renaissance times was more a product of the societal attitude that marriage and sexual activity were inseparable* (or at least that one did not discuss the extent to which they were separable) than a real intent to limit the meaning of the word to the unmarried state.

* = of course, marriage has never been the sole arena for sexual activity, regardless of what people say about the good old days. However, in the past, the onset of sexual activity, extramarital or intramarital as it may have been, roughly coincided with the age of marriage for the vast majority of the population.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 12:31 PM on April 9, 2005


However, since the OED gives the definition of celibate as 1. abstaining from marriage and sexual relations for religious reasons 2. having or involving no sexual relations, I would argue that the English word certainly connotes abstinence from sexual activity, regardless of the strict denotation of the Latin root.

I believe that's the definition for the adjective, and I was talking about the noun. And, as I said before, the usage has become muddied. I, however, have no problem with tilting at semantic windmills and shall continue to resist the descriptivist masses.
posted by anapestic at 12:43 PM on April 9, 2005


the noun and adjective share the same definition in the concise oxford, so i don't think that is going to give you any wiggle room. and i understood the bit about semantic windmills only enough to infer that you're saying you don't care that i don't understand. which seems to be your loss.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:16 PM on April 9, 2005


You're "parents", and I'm an "adult able to finish a book."
posted by dong_resin at 1:44 PM on April 9, 2005


It's not that I don't care that you don't understand. I assumed that everyone understood and had just decided not to care. When, for example, a priest takes a vow of celibacy, he is vowing not to marry. Celibacy and chastity are certainly linked, but as I understand it, the vow of celibacy is taken to help with the practice of chastity.

I was attempting to be light hearted with the bit about tilting at windmills. But my point remains: consulting the concise oxford or any other dictionary is not especially helpful (to a prescriptivist) when dictionaries reflect the current usage of words. People begin to use a word in a way other than its original definition, and over time, the definition changes the definition to conform to the usage. I, on the other hand, would prefer that usage conform to the definition. I am aware that this is a battle that is already lost, but I will still not use "celibate" when I mean "abstinent." Certainly, "unmarried" is available, but I find it inelegant, and lacking a shade of meaning.

Of course, I end up not using the word at all because I don't want my meaning to be mistaken. But, then again, it doesn't come up all that frequently in conversation, so it's no terrible loss, and I would rather not use the word than either use it incorrectly (to me) or tell someone that he's using it incorrectly.
posted by anapestic at 2:13 PM on April 9, 2005


I really can't think of one yet I find it hard to believe there isnt one. I'm going to do some research.

"Neuter" is clearly wrong since that means without gender or sexually null. Speaking as a childless person myself I think the terms "sensible person" or "smart guy" are the most appropriate.
posted by Decani at 2:42 PM on April 9, 2005


Well, I found nullipara, but that only applies to women.
posted by Decani at 2:46 PM on April 9, 2005


Nullipara means "never been pregnant", which is not the same. I read this thread twice, and still wonder what's wrong with "childless"? It's perfectly descriptive, one word, and can be used noun-ishly.
posted by reflecked at 4:56 PM on April 9, 2005


Yeah, it occurred to me almost the second I hit post that nullipara doesn't cover women who have adopted, etc.

I still feel that there must be a bona fide noun out there for this. Damn, it's starting to bug me!
posted by Decani at 6:09 PM on April 9, 2005


Nope, you're thinking of techne, an entirely different word.

well, I knew I was thinking of "techne" but I made an assumption that the similar sounding word also dealing with productivity/creation was derived from the same root. mea culpa.


I really can't think of one yet I find it hard to believe there isnt one.

what would the use of it be, though? To be able to refer to bachelors allows information to be shared slightly indirectly - there are people who will want to know if someone is or isn't married, and the word allows the transmission of that information without specifically asking the question. But why would someone care if other people around are "childless"? That information is really of no use to anyone. The only person who wants a word for that is the childless person who wants to make a point of clarifying that they purposefully chose not to reproduce. But other people aren't sitting around talking to each other, gosh, I wonder, do you think he has purposefully chosen to remain childless?

People care if you do have kids because they may have interest in your kids. People care if you are single or not because they may have interest in hooking up with you. But no one really cares about your personal feelings on the subject of having babies :). That can be a conversation, but we don't need a regular descriptive. The only case I can think of where it's useful info is if the person is single but dedicated to not having kids, in which case I'd go with "childfree" since that's what committed members of that movement call themselves, or "fixed" if they've had surgery.
posted by mdn at 6:16 PM on April 9, 2005


"Old Maid" for an unmarried woman.
posted by delmoi at 8:45 AM on April 10, 2005


mdn. I strongly disagree with what you say. I think a person's choice to remain childless is interesting. Certainly a hell of a lot more interesting than the mundane and widespread alternative. What use is it, you ask? What use is the word "spinster"? How about "triskaidekaphobic"? Come on, be fair. A voluntarily childless person deserves a noun at least as much as someone who is superstitious about the number 13.

The reason I find it hard to believe there isn't a noun for the state of being childless is nothing to do with relative utility. It is simply that our great and glorious English language has nouns for far, far more obscure things, and also that it would be really simple to construct such a word from the normal etymological roots.
posted by Decani at 4:51 PM on April 10, 2005


The reason I find it hard to believe there isn't a noun for the state of being childless is nothing to do with relative utility. It is simply that our great and glorious English language has nouns for far, far more obscure things, and also that it would be really simple to construct such a word from the normal etymological roots.


My thoughts exactly, and the motivation behind the original question.
posted by sic at 5:53 AM on April 11, 2005


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