by Liz Walter
Over the last couple of months I’ve written about words and phrases for being old or old-fashioned, so now it’s time to look at the opposite. I’ll start with expressions connected with being young.
We often describe very young children as small or little: There were lots of little children at the show. A small child sat alone in the corner. However, to talk about someone’s younger brother or sister, you always need to use little, not ‘small’: That’s Brad’s little sister.
Several words connected with being young have a double meaning – a literal one and a disapproving one. Childish, for instance, can either mean ‘suitable for or like a child’ or ‘silly and not appropriate for an adult’: These books are too childish for Mia. His behaviour was very childish. Babyish is used in a similar way: The toys were a bit babyish. It’s babyish to cry like that. Childlike can be positive, meaning that someone is innocent, happy and enthusiastic, or more negative, meaning that they are naïve and trust other people too much: They showed a childlike enthusiasm for the task. He had a childlike belief that people were honest.
The rather formal word juvenile can be used in official contexts to refer to a young person, or in the same disapproving way as ‘childish’ and ‘babyish’: She works with juvenile offenders. Her juvenile comments were very unhelpful. Juvenile can also be used as a noun in legal contexts: She was still a juvenile at the time of the crime. Immature is most commonly used in its disapproving sense, but also in more scientific contexts to describe plants or animals that are not fully grown: He’s rather immature for his age. There are strict rules about the sale of immature animals.
The word youthful is always positive and is used to describe something that is typical of young people, though it can be used admiringly of older people too: They were full of youthful excitement. She’s a very youthful seventy-year-old.
Finally, a couple of colourful idioms. If we want to say that a young person lacks experience, we can describe them as wet behind the ears: He was still a bit wet behind the ears in those days. And in a rather sweet, though slightly old-fashioned, phrase we might describe a small child as being knee-high to a grasshopper: The last time I saw you, you were knee-high to a grasshopper!
In my next post, I’ll be looking at words for talking about things that are modern or new.