In Shakespeare’s plays, there are a few characters designated as bastards. John the Bastard is the villain in Much Ado About Nothing. He is the illegitimate half-brother of Don Pedro. The word bastard dates from the 13th century, and is of French origin. The Online Etymological Dictionary traces the word to fils de bast, a child born out of a union on a packsaddle, the saddle being used as an improvised bed.

Shakespeare’s King John has another well-known bastard, Philip Faulconbridge, who is a central character in the play. Robert is his legitimate brother. The mother reveals to the Bastard that Richard the Lionheart, and not her husband, was his true father. Philip says that he has forgone “his land, legitimation, name and all", but is happy to have such a father.

V.R. Narayanaswami

Today the term illegitimate child is seen to be an example of biased language. It is not only politically incorrect, but also grammatically wrong. The child is not the subject, or the actor, and there can be nothing wrong with the child. It is the union that is illegitimate and the parents should bear the stigma for it.

Shakespeare has used the word legitimation, and that covers a number of situations. Under what circumstances can bastardy be legitimated? If unmarried parents get married after the birth of the child, does that confer legitimacy on the baby’s birth? Conversely, if the parents separate after the birth of the child and the marriage is annulled, does the child continue to be legitimate? In both these cases, the present-day practice is in favour of the child. The Roman Catholic code of canon law affirms the legitimacy of a child born before the annulment of the marriage (Wikipedia).

Starting with the 1970s, the US Supreme Court has removed several of the disabilities that illegitimacy of birth imposed on the child. Similar measures were taken by all the states. It is now the responsibility of both parents to support and care for the child, whatever be the marital status of the parents. All children, legitimate, illegitimate or adopted, have the same rights. Legitimation by subsequent marriage is the norm in the US, and in England a 1926 statute approved the same measure.

The Associated Press Stylebook has added an entry for illegitimate child in its online version. It considers the phrase offensive and recommends the use of more straightforward factual descriptions like “child whose mother was not married", or “child whose parents were not married".

Illegitimate, illicit and illegal are near synonyms that carry slightly varying shades of meaning. Illegitimate generally refers to birth outside marriage; illicit refers to action or substance, as in illicit trade, or illicit liquor. Illegal is a word of broader range. The recommendation today is to avoid illegitimate in such contexts, as it is derogatory to the child.

There have been a few recent cases of celebrities who had out-of-wedlock children. Jesse Jackson, a US presidential candidate, had a daughter, Ashley, born as a result of an affair with a staffer, Karin Stanford. Former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, confessed to fathering a child with a woman who was their housekeeper. The report avoided using the word illegitimate, preferring “out-of-wedlock child" and “love child".

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column

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