Adjectives for children’s chronic conditions

In the Google ngrams database of American English, I got relative frequencies of the terms x+children, where x is a chronic malady of some sort. I tried a lot of different ones, and only included ones that topped the list at least once in the past 100 years. The most common (as suggested in the comments below) is “handicapped children,” which dominates all others from 1920 to 1995. After that, this is what I came up with, ordered by the period in which they were #1:

  • 1910s: sickly children
  • 1920s: neurotic children
  • 1930s-1950s: maladjusted children
  • 1965-1975: psychotic children
  • Mid-1970s, briefly: hyperactive children
  • Late 1970s-2000s: disabled children

After the mid-1990s, however, “children with disabilities” becomes more common than any of them. I couldn’t find anything in the old days that was as popular as disabled or hyperactive would later become. Does this imply more concern or negative attention to children?

Here is the figure. The frequency of each term is shown in relation to the total uses of “children” (click to enlarge):


If you think I missed anything, to play with it yourself, or to see how I did it, here’s the link.

Another question about the same terms: are they individualized (x-child) or grouped (x-children)? Summing all the terms with child, shown as a percentage of all the terms with children (leaving out “with disabilities”), produces this figure (smoothed to a 10-year curve):


Individualization peaked from 1920 to 1940, when the combined individual terms outnumbered the plural terms, before sliding till 1990. Now we may be in an individualizing rebound. (Here is the link to that search if you’re interested in the coding).

I get a kick out of language history like this. But I draw no conclusions without further study. Here are some related posts:


3 thoughts on “Adjectives for children’s chronic conditions

  1. This is absolutely the proper way to describe children with disabilities. Decades ago I was in a conversation with my daughter who was home from college. I said something like “Disabled kids,” she stopped me and said, “No mom, never say ‘disabled kids’ because then you are putting the disability first the focus is then on the disability and the child second. We need to always focus on the child first, so say, ‘Children with disabilities.'”

    In the same way I so wish I could turn the lexicon to say people who are gay. Or Men who are gay, rather than gay men. Or, women who are lesbian, or people who are bi-sexual. The same way we put the child first in the above example, we should put the person first when referencing these sexual minorities. Yes it takes longer to write it out this way, but our sexual orientation is *only a part of who we are,* it is not ALL of who we are, so the emphasis should be first noting that people are a full person first as in ‘a man, a woman, or a person.’ My preferred term is sexual minorities as in “people who are sexual minorities blah, blah, blah.” I think there is less stigma to the term sexual minority and it also allows for a broad spectrum of people who are not 100% straight but don’t call themselves gay or lesbian either.


  2. “Handicapped children” is another big one. My redoing of the graph has it blowing the other categories out of the water until the 1990s.


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