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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Born or hatched?

At some point in my distant past I must have been taught to make a distinction between "born" (of mammals) and "hatched" (of birds, reptiles, etc. that emerge from eggs). I say this because, upon watching an item on TV about a pair of peregrine falcons that have set up housekeeping in Toronto, I had a kneejerk schoolmarm reaction when I heard the announcer talking about the birds being born. You will know that Wordlady doesn't often have these!

I find some exercises for schoolchildren on the Web where they have to categorize animals as "born or hatched", so perhaps this is where my objection comes from. It doesn't seem to be a hot issue amongst usage commentators, and far be it from me to quibble with John Keats, who in his "Ode to a Nightingale" has the following line: "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!" (mind you, perhaps one should not take Romantic poets as experts on ornithology, since Shelley famously produced the line in "To a Skylark": "HAIL to thee, blithe spirit! Bird thou never wert").

I see from birdwatching websites that birders talk of birds being born. Please do let me know if you have this "born/hatched" usage issue or not. Perhaps it's time for me to let it go.

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  1. I think it IS time you let the 'born/hatched' issue go, Katherine, since 'born' is all-inclusive.

    I think you also drop the 'st' from amongst - it has an old-fashioned sound to it - and I know you'd never want to be thought of as 'old-fashioned'!

    Another word that needs pruning is 'towards.' The 's' is completely unnecessary, don't you think? Most major print media use 'toward,' I believe.

    Enjoy your Easter weekend and, especially, the chicks that are 'born'!

  2. Hello Norman,
    You can read more about toward and towards at this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2010/09/upwards-and-onwards.html.
    As for "amongst", I seem to have used "among" 5 times for 1 "amongst" since I started this blog. I don't know why I used "amongst" this time. I don't know that it's old-fashioned; it's alive and well in British English and alive enough in Canadian English that we gave it as a variant without comment in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. In any case, I don't see it as a problem that we have variants like this. Vive la difference!

  3. Yes, I agree about reacting unfavourably(although in my case the knees didn't jerk but my mind thought to itself "wince") to hearing on TV about birds being born. I remember thinking that that wasn't the right word. But then I wonder how many of the "pretty young things (or, if not young, made up to look like) have more than a few hundred words of English vocabulary? When I hear something that bothers me I wonder about the staff writers, as well.

  4. Hello Felicity,
    Well I am not alone in this, then! Also I think urbanites tend to lose touch with the natural world. I remember overhearing someone once at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa referring to a cow (who was being milked at the time) as "he"!

  5. "Born" is from "boren", the past participle of the Old English "baren". A mammal 'bears' its young in the sense of carrying a burden or load. Since birds and reptiles do not 'bear' their young to term, the closest they could come to being 'born' is the day that their mother lays an egg.

    The second meaning of born is to bring forth or present something, as in "unto us a child is born". Again, this would be slightly absurd if applied to an egg.

    Eggs are laid, eggs hatch. Mammals are born. It's far from a pedantic distinction.

    1. There are many reptiles that have live birds, and a few mammals that lay eggs. And they bear their eggs until they 'lay' them.

    2. Not as black and white as it seems. There are many reptiles that have life birth and a few mammals that 'lay' eggs. Technically, egg-laying animals 'bear' their eggs until they are mature enough to lay them.

  6. I stumbled upon this blog because I too have a feeling that born and hatched are exclusinve terms. I've written a science fiction novel that features a race of sentient lizards (stay with me here) and the order in which they are "born" is relevant to their society. Only now I'm reviewing my work for print publication, I can't help feeling born is wrong. I've switched all of my "borns" to "hatcheds" but I can't help feeling ninth-born has a better ring to it than ninth-hatched.

    And the worst part is, after reading your post, I'm none the wiser...

  7. Yep, I think it's a distinction that needs to be maintained. Just saw a headline about the world's oldest bird giving birth to a hatchling. What a word mess!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.