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An Alphabet of Feminism #9: I is for Infant

2010 November 29




So runs my dream: but what am I?

An infant crying in the night:

An infant crying for the light:

And with no language but a cry.

Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H. (1849)


Have you ever noticed how many I-words have the in/im prefix? These clarify what something is not.

Thus, in-nocent, in-nocuous = not harmful (the same root as ‘noxious’), im-potent = not powerful, in-capable = self explanatory; &c.

Infant is one such, but cleverly concealed by an unexpected etymology. Along with its archaic variants (enfaunt, infaunt), it derives from the Latin infans, which is the Greek ‘phemi’ in its plundered Roman form, ‘femi’, plus the Latinate negative (in- = ‘without’).

And phemi / femi? ‘To make known one’s thoughts, to declare’ or, simply, ‘to speak’.

Don’t Speak.

So an infant is ‘without speech’; or, as its first definition clarifies, ‘a child during the earliest period of its life (or still unborn)’ – Shakepeare’s ‘Infant, Mewling and puking in the Nurses Armes’.



Newborns / kittens must indeed rely on ‘mewling’ for their day-to-day needs, but paradoxically such speechlessness gives them a symbolic potency that rings in the ear.

Indeed, they (babies, not kittens) have ‘spoken’ throughout history, from whistleblowing on promiscuous parents to confirmation of marital fidelity.

But hold on just one gosh-darned minute: that’s female fidelity, of course. The maternal connection is the only one you can prove, sans DNA testing. Male extra-curricular activity is neither here nor there.

And history is full of those awkward occasions when ‘speaking likenesses’ gives rise to speculation about what the child’s mother was up to nine months previously.

Mother’s Ruin.

Strangely, the infant’s own inevitable silence simply compounds the seeming power of what ‘they’ are saying: you’re hearing with your eyes rather than your ears. Or just reading.

Indeed, Paulina, the faithful lady-in-waiting in The Winter’s Tale would prove her mistress’ daughter legitimate by pointing to her book-like qualities: ‘Behold, my lords, / Although the print be little, the whole matter / And copy of the father…’

Well into the seventeenth century, the village gossip could also deduce parental naughtiness through something as seemingly random as a child’s constitution: weakness or disease suggested either that the parents had been having too much sex to copulate at their full vigour, or else that conception had happened during menstruation. You slags.

And it didn’t stop there: infants could also tell tales through the very time of their arrival. It was commonly believed that young’uns entered the world nine months to the day after their conception. Consequently, no child born on a Sunday could be christened until its parents had made a public apology for their desecration of the Lord’s Day. Busted.

Even a child’s existence could be disastrously significant.

To sea, To sea…

In 1741, the retired sea-captain Sir Thomas Coram set up London’s first Foundling Hospital, whence came unfortunates from all walks of life to ensure that their screamingly ill-begotten infants would be cared for and kept from incriminating them (not necessarily in that order).

In many instances, such abandonment was the alternative to killing the child or leaving it to die. So Coram was hardly acting on a whim: the social repercussions of Sin were severe, poverty and gin dependency rife (a woman’s problem, and also a means of inducing abortions – why else ‘Mother’s Ruin’?) and the streets covered with child corpses.

Julia Margaret Cameron - The Angel in the House

Infantine... 'The Angel In The House', photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron

So Coram’s critics accused him of fostering sin, by giving it a Hospital wherein to hide: to offer succour to bastard infants was to shield the sinful and encourage further debauchery. Let the wages of sin speak loud and clear.

Speak Now, Or Forever Hold Thy Peace.

In its second meaning, infant becomes more defined: it does not simply signify a speechless-screaming babe-in-arms, but also ‘a person under legal age; a minor’ (someone who has not ‘completed their twenty-first year’).

Here it is law-based, in reference, for example, to all those boy-kings of our early royal history (how many can you name????) – whose legitimacy is the most important thing of all, taking priority over minor considerations such as… oh, I don’t know, BEING OLDER THAN SIX.

Infant in this sense connotes something like having yet to earn freedom sui juris; the legal understanding that a person is fit to govern themselves (and, in royal cases, a country), and consequent emancipation from the rule of parent, guardian or Lord Protector.

Among Spanish royals – to this day – children who are not the direct heir to the throne have the title Infante / Infanta; presumably giving us English our third definition for infant (‘a youth of noble birth’), these are princes of the blood, but they ain’t ruling nothing.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear.

It is also worth considering the more direct fate of infants’ mothers: ‘The very being or legal existence of the women is suspended during marriage’ wrote William Blackstone in 1765. A financial, legal and social dependent – like the children she bore – a wife could be ‘infantine’ through her official speechlessness, than which there is no more perfect example than Coventry Patmore’s poem The Angel in the House (1854-62):

He’s never young nor ripe; she grows

More infantine, auroral, mild,

And still the more she lives and knows

The lovelier she’s express’d a child.

Yet, like the screaming infants littering Coram’s Fields, the silent appendage speaks vicariously: dress, jewellery and inactivity declare her husband’s wealth and status; ‘mildness’ and ‘loveliness’ (like youth and innocence) embody the ideals men battle to protect, with smatterings of the overpowering Rightness of the domestic sphere.

She remains, of course, firmly on her pedestal, and statues, as we know, do not speak (unless they are late Shakespearean and have the rather badass Paulina fighting their corner).

So being infantilised does not mean saying nothing; rather, it means saying what those around you choose to hear.

I is for infant


NEXT WEEK: J is for Jade 

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 29, 2010

    I’m wondering about the meaning “express’d” in the line:

    The lovelier she’s express’d a child

    It might be in line with “she expressed an idea”. In the context, this might refer to expressing herself in femi/as an infant/without speech.

    Or it might be in line with “she expressed her milk”. In the context, expressing a child = giving birth?

    • Hodge permalink
      November 29, 2010

      I had problems with this too. I think the key is that ‘she’s’ is being used as a noun – ‘the loveliest she’ = ‘the loveliest woman’. So then the ‘she’s’ must be ‘[woman] is’ and I assumed that ‘express’d’ meant ‘described as’ or ‘resembling’. ‘And still the more she lives and knows’ – ‘despite the unavoidable knowledge you acquire simply by existing’, ‘the loveliest [type of?] woman is still like a child’. I think.

      But I am happy to bow to any superior knowledge, cos it doesn’t *quite* sound perfect…

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        November 29, 2010

        So, the sense is that the more infantile women are the lovelier they are? Has anybody written that the more articulate and assertive women are the lovelier they are?

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 29, 2010

    The prefix “in-” has (at least) two quite different meanings. One is to negate, as with “invalid” or (indeed) “infant”. The other means “in” or “into” or the like, as with “inside” and (I assume) “indeed”. Another example of the second sense is “inflammable”, which means exactly the same as “flammable”. “Infant” might (although it doesn’t) mean “in speaking” (or similar).

    • Hodge permalink
      November 29, 2010

      Ha. That’s funny – in the first draft I had the exact same example: ‘flammable’ was one of my granddad’s pet hates. Sadly had to be removed for reasons of space….

      • Miranda permalink*
        November 29, 2010

        I’d have let that one in, it made me smile! My dad is the same :)

        • Hodge permalink
          November 29, 2010

          Alas for wordcounts. They have never been my friends. This in itself, however, serves the rest of the world a shielding purpose.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 29, 2010

    “Infant” and “infantilism” connect with things which seem to have become running themes in this alphabet. I would like, if I may, to quote some remarks you (Hodge) made in comment on “girl”:

    “One of the problems with ‘girl’ is that, I think, it also cuts into the heart of the preoccupation with youth, and fear of maturity, which, while not necessarily an exclusively feminist issue, certainly has some serious implications for women.”

    “Here, I think it is worth returning once again to the nickname issue, and perhaps throwing in the slightly strange habit many women have of speaking in fake dialect / accents when they’re saying something a bit controversial or unexpected (on this, see Hadley Freeman, for example – This to me seems to be an attempt to sort of belittle yourself in order to avoid confrontation or challenges.”

    “In the same way, while there may be a kind of fear in growing older (I still find it hard to remember I’m no longer a teenager, even though I’ve been in my twenties for a couple of years now, and stubbornly continue to refer to myself as ‘a girl’ because I simply can’t get my head around the idea that I’ve finally arrived in the realms of ‘women’), I think there is also something about *refusing* to own your maturity which is more of an issue than it would be for a man. No man my age would submit to being called ‘a boy’, for example.”

    • Hodge permalink
      November 29, 2010

      Yeah. I’m counting it as one of the Alphabet’s successes that, as I’m going through, I find the same sort of issues coming back time after time, and thus creating a space for discussion and dialogue about them from lots of different angles. I really hope this is something everyone can engage in.

      I’m also sort of mentally pairing words up – with luck, by the end there’ll be a series of different linguistic approaches to several key feminist issues – social, medical, legal, sartorial, sexual, familial etc: infant and girl are obvious allies, but so too, I hope, will be Hysteria, U and O; X and J; S and N… but that’s all a secret :)

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        November 29, 2010

        Ooh! Secrets! Like gift wrapped presents from Auntie Hodge that I can’t even squeeze as yet.

        • Hodge permalink
          November 30, 2010

          Ha. Well, I would very much like to squeeze a couple of them myself – am not as organized about what’s coming in the next few weeks as I would like to be!

    • Katherine permalink
      March 15, 2011

      “No man my age would submit to being called ‘a boy’, for example.”

      Actually, I’ve found plenty don’t care, as long as they can still call me a girl. They would only take offense at a MAN calling them a boy.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    May 5, 2011

    Primary School, when I attended, was divided into Infants School (5-7 years olds) and Junior School (7-11 year olds). Those infants were certainly able to speak!

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