“Love Child”

How a bastard phrase went mainstream.

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.

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!”

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.

Note the pictures posted in various venues of the boy in question: Standing next to his mother, who is smiling in a white parka, is the boy, his head pixelated so that we can’t see his face. Like all efforts to protect the privacy of those considered victims, this has the dubious effect of reinforcing the sense of shame: It puts forward the message that there is something to be ashamed of. We have to pixilate his face because we don’t want people on the street to recognize him. (Here one thinks of the dictionary definition of bastard: “Something that is of irregular, inferior or dubious origin.”)

There is in all this a sense that this love child should be protected because he is, as Diana Ross says, “scorned by society.” As you read about the scandal on the Internet, it is not long before you come upon headlines like “Arnold’s Secret Lovechild to Blame in Split with Maria,” as if the kid himself is responsible for the collapse of the large Brentwood household. And you can’t help but notice that the faces of Schwarzenegger’s other four children are not blurred—because, the subliminal message goes, they would have nothing to be ashamed of if they were spotted on the street, or on an airplane, or in a Starbucks. They are simply children, not love children.

I happen to have a child outside of marriage, whom I sometimes refer to, in a half-serious, half-jesting way, as a love child, especially around other people who have children outside of marriage. Is this because this is the best term we have? Or is there a sense that we are not apologizing for our children by resorting to the silliest, most tabloidy phrase in circulation? I have a feeling that it’s a little bit of both.

Stepping back, though, what is a tiny bit subversive and possibly appealing about the term is the faint suggestion that the love child has something more to do with love than the baby born in wedlock, who is in a certain sense just doing his job, fulfilling the natural and upstanding function of holy matrimony. On some level, the existence of the love child is testimony to some special energy on the planet, to someone doing something not necessarily sanctioned by the Bible, on his or her own time, out of some extra industry or aspiration.

Some might argue I am being a little overly scrupulous here. Does it matter what words we use for the child of an afternoon fling?  As George Orwell wrote, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Which is to say, the words we use actually shape the way we think, and not just the other way around. In these casual phrases and headlines we are spreading our attitudes, as ambivalent, confused, and inconsistent as they are; we are propagating our mixed messages, our prurient judgments, our puritan fantasies. We are, in our inimitable, ironic register, proving to the love child just how unloved he actually is.

Considering the Eskimos’ rumored 120 words for snow, perhaps we should await another 119 words for love children, as more of them do seem to be in our forecast. And in the meantime, we could embark on the interesting thought experiment of calling Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pixilated 14-year-old his child.