Know your words: Illegitimate

Posted on Thu 11 Aug 2011 @ 6.00am HKT

PREVIOUSLY, we covered the words unlawful and illegal. Today, we’ll look at the word illegitimate and its related forms.

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illegitimate, illegitimately, illegitimateness, illegitimation, illegitimacy

Warning: Be advised that all of these words now carry risk of defamation and therefore come under potentially actionable language (i.e. words that can get you sued).

ALL OF THESE WORDS have two primary meanings, and both relate to the actual legal status of a person. The primary meanings have remained unchanged to this day since 1536:

  1. born out of wedlock [marriage]: born to unmarried parents at the time of birth
  2. not recognised by the law as offspring, specifically, born out of marriage

These are the only two socially and legally acceptable meanings for use today. You are highly advised to stick to them if you wish to avoid being misunderstood or sued for defamation (slander and/or libel). Don’t ever use these words outside the context of a person’s legal status.

The word illegitimate dates from 1536, meaning ‘born out of wedlock,’ modelled on the Latin illegitmus, not legitimate. The sense of ‘unauthorised’ or ‘unwarranted’ is from 1645.

Toujours bonne! A maid handing a man his illegitimate child, a Giclee print by Felix Nadar (1820-1910)

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illegitimate (adj)

Primary meaning

In everyday usage (as well as legal usage), this adjective means born out of wedlock (sense 1), that is, born to unmarried parents at the time of birth (otherwise insultingly, bastardy).


Richard has two legitimate children from his marriage to Mary, but he also has an illegitimate child from an extramarital affair with his secretary. If Richard should die without a will, the law considers all of Richard’s legitimate and illegitimate children as having equal rights to inherit his estate. However, the law enables only a legitimate child to acquire the father’s nationality. The nationality of an illegitimate child is usually that of the mother. (1)

An illegitimate child is usually legitimised by the parents’ later marriage. Under intestate successions, illegitimate children generally have the same inheritance rights as legitimate children. Statutes limiting their inheritance rights have been found to violate the principles of equal protection in inheritance. (2)

Interestingly, the final sentence in example (1) brings sense 2 in play.

"I am a local child. I want to receive compulsory education too!" In China, local schools refused admission for an illegitimate girl of primary-school age because her mother couldn't pay the hefty RMB9,000 (US$1,400) fine for illegitimacy (giving birth out of wedlock). "The mistake I made," her mother says, "has nothing to do with my child."

Secondary meanings — avoid!

Be warned that the adjective illegitimate also has secondary meanings in the sense of ‘unauthorised’ or ‘unwarranted’ (since 1645):

  • not valid according to law: an illegitimate action
  • not sanctioned, permitted or recognised by law or custom
  • unjust, improper, unconstitutional, under-the-table: a ruthless and illegitimate regime

Today, we would say ‘a legally invalid action’ or ‘a legally unrecognised action’ instead of an illegitimate action.

Protip: Why not an illegitimate action, you might ask? The rule of thumb in English is to keep things simple at all possible times. ‘Simple’ here means simpler, not simplistic. Using one fewer word doesn’t always lead to keeping things simpler, especially if the word chosen contains several possible meanings. To keep things simple is to use words that are most readily understandable to the most number of people, sometimes regardless of the actual number of words used.

Other meanings — avoid!

Illegitimate also has these other technical (and dangerous) meanings:

  • (Grammar) irregular, not in keeping with accepted usage: said of words or phrases
  • (Philosophy, Logic) not valid in accordance with the principles of valid inference: incorrectly deduced, not logical, unsound: an illegitimate conclusion
  • (Biology) unacceptable as a scientific name because of contradiction to the international rules of nomenclature

Unless your command of English is at a very high level or you work in those fields of study, stay away from these meanings. You may be liable for defamation.

Aside: Indeed, an illegitimate conclusion is an example of outstandingly bad usage, but highly prevalent and fashionable in academicspeak. If a conclusion is incorrectly deduced, then why not just say so? Why not invalid or irregular or even unsound? Why bring in a highly charged word like illegitimate, if you weren’t trying to pick a goddamn fight? You should not need a defamation suit to learn your lesson.

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illegitimate (n)

This is now a rather outdated noun that means a person who is born out of wedlock (a bastard, so to speak):

John is an illegitimate. (3)

John and Angela are illegitimates. (4)

But why not just say John is Richard’s illegitimate son, which is clearer and unambiguous?

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illegitimate (vt), illegitimise (vt)

To illegitimate (1530-40) is a transitive verb, so the Subject of the verb takes an Object. It means to declare illegitimate. It is not quite a real verb because it is formed by backformation from the adjective illegitimate.

The court illegitimates John’s claim of patrilineal nationality. (5)

The court declares John’s claim to
his father’s nationality as invalid
(5A) (Regularised usage)

Be warned that this verb is no longer used in modern or legal English since to declare illegitimate is clearer and unambiguous.

illegitimise (vt)

Another related transitive verb is to illegitimise (1805-15, AmE: illegitimize), also from the backformation of the adjective, primarily meaning to make or render illegitimate:

The decree illegitimised his heirs. (6)

The secondary meaning is to make or render something illegitimate in the sense of being illegal or unlawful or unacceptable by some code or rule:

The Mardi Gras bride, she claims, “incorporates a self-conscious
awareness of the law’s legitimising and illegitimising effects,
and plays them accordingly”.
(Barbara Baird, ‘Gay Marriage, Lesbian Wedding,’
Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review,
volume 3, number 3, 2007, p. 167, 3rd para.) (Link)

Interestingly, Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition (1984) and the Oxford English Dictionary do not recognise either illegitimate or illegitimise as verbs.

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illegitimately (adv)

This adverb means in a manner not being recognised as legitimate by law:

John was born illegitimately to Richard and Mary. (8)

(Regularised usage: John is the illegitimate son of Richard and Mary) (8A)

The action was brought to court illegitimately because
it was lodged by parties unrelated to the case. (9)

(Regularised usage: The court invalidated the action because
it was brought by parties unrelated to the case.) (9A)

Good, clean, crisp English has no place for the style of expression in examples (8) and (9) — especially (8)! — mainly because there is uncertainty when illegitimately is used on its own without explanation. It also sounds unnecessarily emotionally charged. In law, example (8) is also actionable, whereas (8A) is not.

Also, the comparative (more illegitimately) and superlative (most illegitimately) have fallen into disfavour and out of general circulation since over 100 years ago, mainly because they have become actionable words. The two forms are now more useful for historical purposes and for creating theatrics.

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illegitimacy (n), illegitimateness (n), illegitimation (n)

All three nouns here mean the quality or state of being illegitimate. Avoid all these words!

Illegitimacy still chiefly means the illegitimate status of a child born to parents who are not legally married to each other at the time of birth. Avoid this word!

“Illegitimacy is not a widely used word today, and young people may not even recognize it as an insult. The term designated unmarried mothers, unmarried fathers, and their unlucky children as deviants. All were called ‘illegitimate,’ and illegitimate children were sometimes also called ‘bastards.’ As a label, illegitimacy described their collective status as outcasts who were legally and socially inferior to members of legitimate families headed by married couples. Unmarried birth parents and children suffered penalties ranging from confinement in isolated maternity homes and dangerous baby farms to parental rejection and community disapproval. Before the 1960s, unmarried mothers were usually considered undeserving of the public benefits offered to impoverished widows and deserted wives. They were generally denied mothers’ pensions, which virtually all states granted beginning in 1910, and Aid to Dependent Children, a federal program created by the Social Security Act of 1935. (Divorced women and non-white women were also excluded.) To be illegitimate was to be shamed and shunned.”
The Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, USA

Protip: Nowadays, the word illegitimacy is highly insulting and defamatory in any context. Using it shows you’re a bastard/bitch yourself and have some highly irrational, old-fashioned, sneering biases in your thinking. Instead, we talk about whether something or some action or person as having legitimacy. You can be bloodyminded and say to hell with that, if you like — and end up with a defamation suit on your hands. You’ll get no sympathy.

Illegitimateness probably refers to the real or imagined fact, condition or quality of being illegitimate — for most native English speakers, illegitimateness usually describes the perceived quality (or sense of it) rather than the fact of it. Avoid this word too!

Illegitimation is a a rather technical word and highly to be avoided. It means the act of illegitimising (i.e. bastardising) something or someone:

Gardiner had performed his promise to the queen
of getting her illegitimation taken off.

The trouble with example (10) is you’re often left wondering what exactly is being removed? You’re forcing the reader to read things twice. Replace illegitimation with the act of illegitimising and the sentence really is saying:

Gardiner had performed his promise to the queen
by getting the act of illegitimising her taken off. (10A)

It would have been better to just say:

Gardiner had kept his promise to the queen
by taking off her status of illegitimacy
. (10B)

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Illegitimati non carborundum [est].

(Don’t let the bastards grind you down.)

This is a fake Latin aphorism from around 1939 attributed to British lexicographer Eric Partridge. It uses illegitimati (illegitimates) to mean ‘bastards’ and a fake Latin verb carborundum for ‘should/ought to grind.’

(Carborundum was an American trademark of industrial abrasives made from a compound of carbon and silicon. Silicon in Latin is corundum.)

It is Dog Latin, Cod Latin, macaronic Latin or mock Latin — a phrase created to imitate Latin by directly translating English words into Latin without conjugation or declension. In other words, it is ‘English stew cooked in Latin juices,’ as thenakedlistener wrote in a note from his schooldays.

There are many variants of this phrase. Only the above is a possible Latin phrase, but only under peculiar assumption. Illegitimati suggests illegitimate to the English speaker, but it is not the usual Latin word for ‘bastard.’ The usual Latin words for bastard (spurius, if the father is known, or nothus, if not) are not derogatory or insulting as the English word still is. Also, the fake Latin verb carborundum has to be a gerundive carrying the suggestion ‘should’ or ‘ought,’ and that too is questionable.

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More often than not, something illegitimate usually comes out of something that is illicit.
Find out why to avoid being sued!

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© Learn English or Starve, 2011.

Images: ‘Toujours Bonne!’ by Félix Nadar via ♦ Chinese illegitimate girl via capa001

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