Natal gazing

Of birth, and being borne

“I don’t know nothing about birthing babies!” Butterfly McQueen told Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. Those who believe “birth” should not be used as a verb may accept the line as part of the attempt to replicate contemporary slave dialect.

As it turns out, though, in the novel, by Margaret Mitchell, it was Scarlett O’Hara, not Prissy the slave, who used “birth” as a verb first: “You’ve been saying you knew everything about birthing babies,” Scarlett said, to which Prissy replied, “Ah jes’ see one baby birthed, an’ Maw she lak ter wo’ me out fer watchin’.” (Talk about dialect!)

In using “birth” as a verb, Scarlett and Prissy were both ahead of the times and behind the times.

“Birth” was used as a verb in the Middle Ages to mean “be born”; The Oxford English Dictionary traces that usage to 1325. But it was an intransitive verb, meaning it has no direct object. The OED says the transitive version, “to give birth to” something, traces to 1903, though it also calls that usage dialect.

In the 2012 election, “birth” took on another meaning in the term “birthers,” people who believed Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and so was ineligible to run for or be president. That term has yet to make it into mainstream dictionaries.

Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage says “birth” as a verb is at Stage 4 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, and says, “given its usefulness and its long standing in the language, it should be accepted as standard.”

The OED also defines the transitive verb “birth” as “to give rise to,” quoting a 1945 passage, “The plan for UNO was birthed at Dumbarton Oaks.” Another past participle could have been used there: “born.”

But a very similar past participle, “borne,” could not have been used there. “Borne” is past tense for “bear,” or carry. Since the “plan for UNO” was not carried, it could not be “borne.” Babies, however, can be both “born” (past tense of “birth”) and “borne,” as in “carried” by their mothers.

“Borne” and “born” are often confused. The norovirus was called a food-born illness that affects the stomach and intestines” in more than one news report. The virus was not “born” of food, but “carried” by it. (The Associated Press Stylebook prefers “foodborne.”) Ideas can be “born,” but burdens are “borne.”

Garner’s says that while “born is virtually never mistakenly made borne, the opposite error is common.”

It adds: “This misuse is evidence of the great difficulty that modern writers have with homophones.” It’s almost too much to bare.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , , ,