Words: Adult

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The Independent Culture
"Ministers also want to support 'adult relationships' by introducing more flexible wedding ceremonies," I read in the Independent's excellent report on the government's green paper.

I took it that the quotes round "adult relationships" were not the Independent's Social Affairs Editor's own - that they weren't the sort that have a tacit "as it were" after them - but that these were the green paper's words. Jack Straw used them himself at last week's press conference. But what did they mean exactly?

There's no problem with the etymology. Adult comes from the past participle of the Latin adolescere; when we were children, an adult was simply a grown-up, and the stage at which we ourselves became adults more or less coincided with the point at which we stopped calling them grown-ups and started to call them adults ourselves.

Not that we immediately began to behave like adults, or that we were sure how they were supposed to behave anyway, since we had for some time realised that "adult" did not, after all, mean "wise".

Yet I'm pretty certain that this is what the government means when it talks of "adult relationships". It was not, if I've read the Independent's report correctly, thinking here about the inadvisibility of teenage marriages. In short, it was reverting to the child's-eye view of grown-ups as sensible people.

This understanding of adult as meaning "mature", in the moral sense, is quite recent in the history of the word, which came into the language during the explosive increase in our vocabulary in the 16th century and stayed pretty well the same for nearly 400 years. Certainly an adult was always someone whose physical and mental powers were developed.

But it wasn't until our own century that we began to make the mistake of supposing that those who had reached adulthood had, by definition, put away childish things.

I remember my own childish view of the word being falsely coloured by another word very like it: adultery was something adults did. I was not to know that it came from a different word altogether.

But adult has its seedy overtones too, so in a way I wasn't so far wrong. For the use of adult as meaning "dirty" we might perhaps blame the film censors with their old "A" classification, though most "A" films were innocent enough.

The word often still has nudge-wink quotation marks round it when used in the "dirty" sense, and it was partly this that made those quotes suggestive. Obviously no such thoughts would have entered the minds of the compilers of last week's green paper, with its earnest talk of parenting skills. By this it means not, as in the older meaning of the verb to parent, ways of begetting children, but ways of looking after them once they've been begotten. There's nothing wrong with parenting, so why don't we like it? Is it because of its conjunction with skills? I wish I knew.

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