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:
- What’s been queered?
- Do people working work in working families?
- Word signs of the times
- Where did we go wrong, or did we? (love and sex edition)
- Strat theorists, ngram waves
- Why are mothers becoming moms?
- Demographic trends and ngrams
- Horizontal and vertical family relationships, literarily
- ‘Parenting’ through the (only very recent) ages