10 Interesting Facts About the Etymology of Babysitter

January 23rd, 2012 by admin

Merriam-Webster defines the word etymology as “the history of a linguistic form (as a word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language.” In layman’s terms, this means that the etymology of a word is the study of its origin. Here are some interesting facts about the word “babysitter,” and how it came to be a part of our everyday language.

  1. The Noun Predates the Verb Form – The noun, “babysitter” was first published in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1937, well before the verb “babysit” was first used in print. Most nouns are derived from the verb form, such as “to babysit.” This is called back-formation, and isn’t altogether common.
  2. The Verb “Babysit” Was Coined in 1947 – A full decade after the noun “babysitter” was accepted into common usage, the verb “babysit” is found. It’s difficult to imagine that a word we use so commonly is a relatively recent one!
  3. Babysitting Originated in the Suburbs – Part of the explanation for the youth of the term “babysitter” lies within the fact that babysitters were fairly uncommon before the mid-twentieth century. Babysitting became the main form of employment for teenage girls in the postwar surge of suburban living; before that time, most parents who were well-off enough to enjoy an evening on the town could afford to keep a live-in servant on the payroll. Parents without servants typically lived very close to extended family or even in the same household. As the American family structure changed and suburbia began to take hold, parents started to rely on the teenage daughters of their neighbors for occasional childcare.
  4. British English Usage is Slightly Different Than American English – Like many words, the definition across the pond varies slightly. In the UK, the word “babysitter” is solely used to describe an informal, occasional helper who works for a few hours at a time, in the evening. Americans use the term to describe both occasional workers and those who care for their children on a regular, full-time basis. The regular childcare provider that works a daytime schedule in the UK is referred to as a “childminder.”
  5. To “Sit” Other Things is Derived From the Word “Babysitter” – Words like “house-sitter” and “pet-sitter” came into common usage in the late twentieth century, and are derived from the original noun “babysitter.”
  6. The Shortened Form Predates the Verb – As previously mentioned, the back-formation of the word babysitter means that the noun was introduced into usage before the verb form. Even more unusual, the accepted shortened usage, “sitter,” was first introduced in 1943; it predates the verb usage by four years.
  7. The Term is Commonly Accepted in Reference to Inanimate Objects – Though its original and most common usage refers to a person who takes care of children, the word “babysit” is now used in a variety of contexts, even in reference to inanimate objects. For instance, a person who drinks slowly can be accused of “babysitting” a drink, or a writer with a long unfinished novel may say that he’s been “babysitting” his novel for years.
  8. Chickens May Be the Real Mothers of the Word – The settling upon the term “sit” to mean “caring for” is shrouded in mystery. Many etymologists theorize that the word  stems from laying animals, such as hens, who sit on their eggs to ensure their warmth and safety.
  9. Early Babysitters Weren’t So Polite – In the 1950′s, young girls who babysat for their neighbors often referred to babysitting as “bratting.”
  10. The “Petticoat Monopoly” Emerges – Because the pool of available babysitters in the early days of the word were predominantly white, teenage girls, the era has been called the “Petticoat Monopoly.” The emergence of teen culture as a commercially-targeted demographic is thought by many to be partially due to the burgeoning incomes of teenage suburbanite girls during this period.

Whether you use the word “babysitter” in it’s strict British English definition or take a more Americanized approach, the fascinating history of this industry has been an indisputable part of our cultural fabric for generations.

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