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When does a kid stop being a kid? Meanings and usage of the word kid.

When does a kid stop being a kid?

Last summer, my city’s community forum had a post that generated considerable discussion about the meaning of the word kid. Our governor had announced, via Twitter, that “All Oregon kids ages 1-18, regardless of immigration status, can get free summer meals” from the state’s Summer Food Service Program.

Now, everyone agreed that feeding the hungry was a good idea, but someone asked whether an 18-year-old was a kid or not. Shouldn’t 18-year-olds be considered adults, they wondered, not kids?

Other folks weighed in on the kid or not-a-kid question. One suggested that anyone enrolled in a K-12 institution was a “school kid.” Another asked whether people stopped being kids when they reached the age of legal majority or age of consent. Those ages vary by jurisdiction, so one could be an adult in Kansas but still a kid in Nebraska.

The assumption underlying the kid or not-a-kid thread was that someone was either a kid or an adult. But kid, like most words, is polysemous: it has more than one related meaning. Putting aside the young goat business, dictionaries will tell you that kid is an informal term for child and also that child refers to one’s offspring of any age. So, like Schrödinger’s famous cat (or Double-mint Gum), it is possible to be in two states at once: both a kid and an adult. 

Ordinary usage bears this out. It’s not uncommon to read about someone’s “adult children” or “grown kids.” And Rick Blaine’s “Here’s looking at you, kid” in Casablanca wasan endearment directed to his former love Ilsa Lund. Rick was using a term of endearment first popularized in a flirty 1909 song called “Oh, you kid.” Kid is no longer much used in that “sweetie-pie” sense, and other slang uses have fallen by the wayside (you can check them out in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, if you are curious). But the nouns kid and kiddo have a long history of being used to refer to adults.

And of course, kid is used as a verb also, meaning to joke or tease. That use remains vibrant today even to the point of being abbreviated as JK. In earlier times, the verb to kid leaned toward trickery and hoaxes rather than what we think of as playful teasing. Is there a connection to kid the noun? The Oxford English Dictionary goes out on a limb to say that the verb is “perhaps” from the noun in the sense of “to make a kid of.” 

The flexibility of the noun kid is actually a semantic advantage. It allows speakers and writers to refer to young people in a general way without fussing about the lines between infants, wobblers, toddlers, young children, tweens, and teens.  

This flexibility may be why the above-mentioned Tweet writer (almost certainly not the governor herself) chose kids. The alternatives are all a bit clunky: “All Oregon students ages 1-18” is not quite right, since infants, wobblers, and toddlers won’t be in school. “All Oregon children ages 1-18” seems odd in a different way, suggesting that teenagers are children, and “All Oregon youth ages 1-18” seems to single out adolescence. The writer could have tried “All Oregon children and teens, ages 1-18,” or “All young Oregonians, aged 1-18,” but neither of those have the breezy, informal feel of a Tweet.  

For me, kids is just right.

Featured image: “Playground equipment at Fu Shan Park in Woodlands, Singapore.” by Wzhkevin. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Hugh Pawsey

    DeLisle’s Ten Ages diagram (1300) shows courtly names for the ages in the four spandrels. The bottom left corner, labeled ‘Infancy,’ shows a lanky teenager, adolescens. The mature kingly figure is labeled ‘Youth’ and that is flattery or courtesy, but the infant must be an orphaned heir, legally a kid until he comes of age or marries.

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