I have always loved to dance. As an adult adoptee, a bio mom, and an adoptive mom, I dance between love and loss regularly. I dance with joy over small victories and small signs of acceptance. I dance to escape pain and to avoid obvious rejection from my family(ies). Let me continue to dance with the pain, the understanding, the surrender, His plan, and not faint.

From where and how did adoption language originate, develop, change, expand, increase, and become loan words and metaphors used in other domains?  Further, what connotations do adoption words carry and how do the connotations affect perceptions of adoption?    As an adoptee and an adoptive mom in Dr. Taylor’s Linguistic class, I found myself wondering why the hair stands up on the back of my neck when I hear or read “adopt the legislation,” “adopt-a-lot,” “orphan article,” and other such items.  Do the words themselves possess definitive power in their origin?  Or, does my personal experience with adoption cause me to hover and sometimes wince?  Where did the words surrounding adoption originate?

Following Dr. Taylor’s caveat to reach out to an expert, I sent Adam Pertman (Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the preeminent research, policy and education organization in its field) an email with “Adoption Language Research Inquiry.”  I heard back quickly from Mr. Pertman via email, and we scheduled a phone conversation for an upcoming date.  I knew about Pertman and his Adoption Institute (its focus on research) through my experience with the “American Adoption Congress” and having attended two of their conferences.  Further, throughout recent years, the institute’s name populates several bibliographies and research documents I encountered. 

While waiting for my phone interview with Mr. Pertman, I started academic research towards answers to my questions.  My initial probes into adoption language returned next to nothing; this led me to suspect my lack of research skills as the culprit.  I made an appointment with a librarian at Briggs Library on campus.  Miss Elizabeth Fox led me through some basics in “graduate level” research for scholarly articles; and, she took me to the Oxford English Dictionary.  I recognized then I would spend time there, in the Reference Section.

Soon, I spent thirty minutes on the phone with Adam Pertman.  I shared with him my trouble in finding research on this topic of the language of adoption.  I asked him, “Is that because I have just not found it yet, or . . .?”  He enthusiastically jumped in and shared with me that very little research currently exists on the matter.  Further, he informed me of his interest to write a book about such.  Following, please note the wide-range of concepts and topics we discussed that morning over the phone in a 30 minutes phone conversation:

  • The term “put up for adoption” came from children coming off the Orphan Train and stepping up onto platforms waiting for a family to choose them. 
  • Mormon’s and families in other countries still adopt to “grow the flock”—increase their numbers (genius genes, for labor); it probably sounds more crass than it is, as many of them probably do love their children.
  • But, people develop biological families for strange reasons also—even for selfish reasons, too.
  • We cannot develop a good language around secrets and cultural shame.  We haven’t done it well yet.  The language is convoluted. (Pertman)  Pertman quote:  “We pay a very steep price for our history.”


  • “Positive Adoption Language” (PAL) aims admirably at “Let’s be positive about this.”  However, why can’t the language be “commonplace adoption language” or “normal adoption language?”  And, Pertman mentioned “was adopted” as part of PAL recommendations; however, current consensus shows that “adoption is a life long process,” so how can we use past-tense terminology?  Shouldn’t PAL be “is adopted?”
  • We discussed those “touched by adoption” (as opposed to “affected by adoption”) might be likened to minorities in our culture.  American Indians, African Americans, and several other minority groups have achieved space for public conversation.  Adoption does not share similar public space or public awareness.    Minority groups often face the problem of recovering from past discrimination or an overall regretful history, and adoption’s history carries regrets.   Pertman says about the struggle to find acceptable adoption words:  “we are trying to clean up the mess from the past.”
  • Because adoption has not made its way into a public conversation yet, many people a) do not think the language has consequences, and b) do not comprehend a problem with rhetoric exists.  Pertman echoes our Crystal textbook in his belief that culture affects language, and language affects culture. 
  • Many people in our culture view adoption as a second-class decision, “Oh, they couldn’t have kids, so they adopted.”  Also, programs like “adopt-a-highway,” “adopt-a-school,” “adopt-a-parking lot” suggest an insensitivity to the word “adopt.”  Do we mean to parallel adopting a highway with adopting a human being with our language?  Pertman wisely drew a picture of a continuum for me—that some uses of the verb “adopt” seem reasonable:  such as “adopting legislation,” some uses might seem marginally reasonable:  “adopt a pet” as most of the time people love and care for their pets—with the exception of choosing to “put one’s dog down” and such.  However, the nonsensical use of the word, such as “adopt-a-star” and “adopt-a-highway” should change, according to Pertman. 
  • What can we do?  Move forward to educate, inform, make public the discussion, change the culture, and change the language.  “Language affects the culture affects the language.” (Pertman)
  • According to Pertman, the culture is changing.  “Many women today are not opposed to the language and not tied to shame and secrecy.” (Pertman)

            After speaking with Mr. Pertman, I recognized the valuable experience of speaking with a real person “in the field.”  I sent emails to department heads on the SDSU campus in the Psychology and Sociology Department with clear descriptions in my subject line, hoping to find another expert—or at least someone interested in this topic.  Instead, my requests all returned as politely declined due to lack of knowledge.  However, one brave psychology professor (who must remain unnamed) responded, assuring me her lack of expertise in the area of adoption; still, she expressed willingness to meet.  That meeting, while very different from what I expected and very different from my interview with Mr. Pertman, helped me progress also.  Apparently, she teaches about adoption in her undergraduate “Child Development” class.  The professor showed me a textbook published in 2009 and one published in 2012.  Please find the following quotes from the textbooks:

Studies of transracial adoptions, in which parents of one racial group adopt a child of a different race, have found no differences between transracial adoptees and children adopted by same-race parents in terms of their racial self-identity, general adjustment, or self-esteem (Baden, 2022; Feigelman, 2000; Silverman & Feigelman, 1990; Vroegh, 1997).  As with children of divorced or single parents, it seems that the majority children adjust well and function normally (Psychology Textbook 472).

Common sense and life experience could argue against these two sentences.  This textbook section also uses the TIME IS MONEY metaphor:  “Adolescents who spend a lot of time wondering about their birth parents may have strained relations with their adoptive parents (Kohler, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2002, italics mine).”  As an adoptee, I read this as a warning:  I best not “spend a lot” of my time that way if I want a good relationship with the parents I have; further, I would not want my daughter to believe this statement.  The textbook section (barely one page out of at least 472 pages) does a terrible job, really, of introducing anything true about adoptees.  The other textbook presents a section called, “Adoptive Families.”  This section (in total barely one page out of at least 589 pages) summarizes, “Despite these risks, most adopted children fare well;” and “Clearly, adoption is a satisfying family alternative for most parents and children who experience it.  Good outcomes can be promoted by careful pairing of children with parents and provision of guidance to adoptive families by well-trained social service professionals” (588-589, italics mine).  Both of these seem to come from a place of “I’m OK, you’re OK” philosophy, seemingly, based on the general “everyone turns out fine eventually, regardless of who parents them” tone of these textbook sections. 

            And, both textbooks, when introducing any deviation from these comforting phrases and passages point to the biology and original background of the child as the first culprit.  When this professor paraphrased to me what the textbooks said, she used the words, “and then of course, there’s bad genes” and giggled.  I raised my eyebrows, leaned forward, widened my eyes beyond their true capability, and asked incredulously, “Does it say that in there?”  When she realized via my reaction that she had perhaps chosen offensive words, she put her nose in one of the books to read one of the following passages “word-for-word:”

Many children are put up for adoption because their biological parents were too young, lived in poverty, were addicted to drugs or alcohol, or suffered from a mental illness or serious health problem.  Other children were abused or neglected before being adopted.  (472)

Similarly in the other textbook:  “The biological mother may have been unable to care for the child because of problems believed to be partly genetic, such as alcoholism or severe depression, and may have passed this tendency to her offspring” (588).  After about a half hour, we clearly recognized ourselves as on different playing fields regarding adoption.  We amicably agreed to part ways, I thanked her, and she made copies of her textbook.  Afterwards, I e-mailed her some scholarly research articles from Psychology journals with research pointing to different conclusions than those we discussed.


Next, I received an appreciated offer from Dr. Taylor to share links to the Oxford Online dictionary for a set of words, if I could provide for him such a list.  I reviewed my brainstorm of words  and submitted to him my top words in terms of relevance to my project.  As a subscriber to the Oxford Online dictionary, Dr. Taylor possesses the advantage to browse the dictionary from his own personal space rather than drag out the heavy brown leather-bound volumes in Briggs Library.  I simply printed each of the words on paper to begin increasing my awareness of the origins of these words and how to further study them.  I will reference the effect learning the origin of these words surrounding adoption influenced me shortly.

Once I compiled my group of Oxford dictionary definitions, I became curious about how the American Heritage Dictionary online (AHD online) might emit different results.  Looking for adoption words there led me to several revelations, as noted in my portfolio.  For the purpose of this narrative, I will mention only a few discoveries.  First, when I typed in “adoption,” “adopt” arrived on my screen.  The second definition brings up the matter of a pet:

  1.  To take on the legal responsibilities as parent of (a child that is not one’s biological child). 
  2. To become the owner or caretaker of (a pet, especially one from a shelter).  (AHD online, italics mine)

My entry of “birthmom” returned “birth mother and birthmother” and the definition stands alone as “One’s biological mother”  Lack of reference here to adoption seems odd to me, as I do not refer to myself as the birthmother of my biological children—only on rare occasions when people ask if we adopted all of our children.  I typed in “adoptee rights” and found no entries.  I did notice “American Indian” commands a much lengthier definition along with a “Usage Note” compared to the “African American” entry which merely states:  “A black American of African ancestry.”  The second definition of “stepchild” bothered me; “2.  Something that does not receive appropriate care, respect, or attention:  “For the longest time, children’s books … were considered the stepchild of publishing” (Robert Sabuda)” (AHD online).  I checked on this word for two reasons:  1) Adam Pertman mentioned the “accepted language” of stepfamilies, and 2) Kyle referred to his research obsession as the “forgotten stepchild” of Larson’s.  If I were a stepchild, I would not want to find this second entry as part of the definition or hear it used.  To my dismay and shock, when I began to type “orphan” into the AHD online, the search engine recommended “orphan disease” in the white box underneath.  I checked into it and found:   “A disease that is relatively rare, for which the development of drugs is considered to be commercially nonviable.”  “Orphan,” then, took me to a definition holding true two a child for only the first two entries, and then the definitions switched to “animal, “one,” a “technology or product,” and  “a very short line of type.”  I do shake my head at the freedom of the use of a word that originally and most popularly defines a child without parents to care for him or her.

            Speaking of shaking my head, my next research event—searching for journal articles through the Briggs library online site, I typed in “adoptee” and found articles the following titles (to name a few):  “Juvenile Delinquency and psychiatric contact among adoptees compared to non-adoptees,” “Counseling Adult Adoptees,” “ADHD in international adoptees,” “ Our Adoptee, Our Alien,” “Pre-Adoption Adversity and Self-Reported Behavior Problems in 7 Year-Old International Adoptees,” “Risk for schizophrenia in intercountry adoptees,” and “Suicidal behavior in national and international adult adoptees.”

At this point, I turned to Crystal’s book, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, to find answers.  Crystal speaks to my musings in his “Lexical Dimensions” chapter:

Some of the most loaded words in the language are those associated with the way society talks about itself, and especially about groups of people whom it perceive to be disadvantaged or oppressed.  The most sensitive domains are to do with race, gender, sexual affinity, ecology, and (physical or mental) personal development.  (177)

Crystal also refers to a period through which I lived—“the early 1990s . . . [when] people reacted strongly to what they saw as a trend towards terminological absurdity” (177).  My hopes to coin “new words” diminished as I considered even my own eyes rolling with seemingly “absurd” politically correct new words—all the way to “height-challenged” instead of “short.”  But Crystal’s text took me a step further:  “Critics of PC believe that the search for a ‘caring’ lexicon is pointless, as long as the inequalities which the language reflects do not change” (177).  Of course, proponents of PC language believe using incorrect terms can only “perpetuate these inequalities” (Crystal 177).  The following words in Crystal’s text makes me weary of setting out to make adoption language more politically correct:  “Dissatisfaction over one term tends to spread to its replacement, as has been seen with such sequences as negro to black to Afro-American to African-American” (177).  Additionally, “Those who adopt a PC line typically do so with an aggressiveness which creates antagonism” (Crystal 177).  This controversy over “language” shows up in the “Positive Adoption Language” movement and its predecessor:  “Respectful Adoption Language” (RAL) invented by the adoption industry in the mid70s, and not to remain unmentioned—“Honest Adoption Language” (HAL) and Inclusive Language.”  Reading this section in Crystal’s book deters me from forging on as “one of those” who creates a new list.  For now, I stand more on the side of Mr. Pertman and PC critics—that the words and usage of the words will not change until our culture understands adoption.

For a moment, I will present what I found on Wikipedia as a beginning to my research—not as an end.  The quotes I use here come directly from Wikipedia, and most of them relate to the history of adoption and view adoption through a social lens.  Thus, while not directly connected to my linguistic search, much of what I read spurred my further research.  I found phrases like “The Code of Hammurabi . . . details the rights of adopters and the responsibilities of adopted individuals at length;” and, “political and economic interest of the adopter  . . . a legal tool to strengthen political ties between wealthy families and created male heirs.”  I learned from Wiki that “many or Rome’s emperors were adopted sons.”  I read words like “slave supply,” “children as commodity,” “to ensure continuity of cultural and religious practices,” and “adoption of males to perform the duties of ancestor worship.” 

I pressed on further through Ancient times, to the Middle Ages to the Modern Era on Wikipedia and found the Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic nobility “denounced adoption” as “bloodlines were paramount” because “a ruling dynasty lacking a natural-born-heir was replaced.”  Napoleonic code “made adoption difficult” and soon after monasteries began raising children who needed parents.  Wikipedia notes this as the “beginning of institutionalization.”  Then, then moving into modern times, I find “the first modern adoption law occurred in 1851.”  I found stories of Sister Irene, the first “foundling asylum” located at 17th East 12th St in NYC.  The details of the address fascinate me as my own search details, addresses, phone number, license plate numbers of my birth family did.  Had I discovered that I spent part of my life in the “foundling asylum,” I would have wanted to know the exact address; and, I would have visited that space.

Finally, I discovered “Charles Loring Brace” and essay entitled The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children (1859).  Charles Loring Brace carries the notoriety as the author of the “Orphan Train” movement, and the “father of foster care.”  Along with Brace’s rough-edged title, I found Henry H. Goddard’s book (1911) titled, Wanted:  A Child to Adopt, and the following excerpt: 

How short-sighted it is then for such a family to take into its midst a child whose pedigree is absolutely unknown; or, where, if it were partially known, the probabilities are strong that it would show poor and diseased stock, and that if a marriage should take place between that individual and any member of the family the offspring would be degenerates. 

Then, in 1945-974, I see the term “baby scoop era” defining a term of rapid increase in the number of adoption.  Eventually, science began to emphasize nurture over genetics, and the “eugenic stigma” of Brace and Goddard’s movement lessened.  By 1945, the trend of sealing adoption records began; Charles Loring Brace “introduced it to prevent children from the Orphan Trains from returning to or being reclaimed by their parents.”

            In sum of my Wikipedia findings, I made some discoveries regarding why the hairs raise on the back of my neck when I google “adoptee grief” and find articles and pictures of animals.  Built into the eugenics movement, I found Goddard’s use of the word “pedigree.”  And, built into the history of adoption, I find “slave supply,” “economic interest of the adopter,” and “children as commodity.”  Mr. Pertman spoke directly to this during our interview on the phone:  “We pay a very steep price for our history.”  Words carry both denotations and connotations, and the connotations steeped in this type of history bother me at a gut level. 

            Crystal speaks of “The Loaded Lexicon” in CEEL, stating that “connotation refers the personal aspect of lexical meaning—often, the emotional associations which a lexeme incidentally brings to mind.”  And, “connotations vary according to the experience of individuals, and . . . are to some degree unpredictable” (171).  I find the excerpt from S.I. Hayakawa in which he distinguishes between “snarl words” and “purr words” an interesting concept; I applied these concepts to an “Adoption Glossary” I found on a widely accessed site—Adoption.com.  I included this glossary with an “S” for “snarl” and a “p” for “purr” next to it, based on my own experience and the connotations the words carry for me.  I offer this as an attempt to not create a completely new glossary of terms, but to begin a discussion (even if with myself) of positive, negative, and neutral adoption language words. 

At this point of my research, I find my engagement with the OED quite helpful; it even brought to a place of more peace. 

            On the other side of this I-Search project, mostly I feel “not done.”  I cracked open the door, but I want to learn more.  Personally, my research awakened a new awareness in me regarding adoption language.  So often, I find myself accepting life and its issues as complicated.  The longer I live, the more sides to every story.  


Comments on: "History of Adoption Language Research–“Adopt-a-Highway?”" (5)

  1. Reblogged this on Adoption Mania and commented:
    I’ve been pondering for a while the language used around adoption, and even have aborted attempts at writing about it in drafts on http://adoptedintheuk.co.uk/ where I also hypothsise about why adoption language should be positive, rather than normal, or honest. Thus I’m delighted to find that someone has actually managed to construct a post that I couldn’t.

  2. Well done – it’s complicated and compounded by our era and our experience. A lot of the terms used today I cringe against solely because it appears the focus is solely on the positive side, and there is a negative side, and if only the positive is possible from the terms used – then a lot of people will be hurt.

    I do disagree with Adam that it is because of the bad history of adoption that is trying to be fixed by language, because that history is still being made today in many shapes and forms. Adoption will never be done perfectly, but if we are content to sit back and believe it is now, then we deceive ourselves.

    I found myself wanting to defend/negate the statement of ‘marginally acceptable’ use of adopting a pet – because I do adopt my animals from shelters. To me it is applicable because adoption is the taking in and raising a baby/child who needed a home vs. buying a baby/child. I do the same for animals, and if I bought them at a pet store – it would not be adopting. Different species same reality – both needed a home.

  3. We clearly need a public narrative of adoption in order to make real change. Adoptees need to come together- out of the closet- and declare that they will not keep secrets any longer. This is the only way to create public awareness.

    As an adult adoptee who recently claimed my heritage and began to ‘out’ myself publicly, I have noticed the discomfort of others with the subject, despite their support. We do not have a clear public narrative and are still in the shadows.

    How can we band together for change (like access to birth certificates- people are astounded that adult adoptees don’t have access) ?

    It seems that adoptees are a tough group to keep connected.

    Thank you for your research and for putting words to our shared discomfort and challenge. I believe that this work helps more adoptees articulate their experience and step forward- and there is much to be done to build a supportive national framework.

    Sign me up to help!

  4. I am writing the following as I am sure you want what is written on your blog to be as accurate as possible:

    I arrived at this blog post as I searched for info on using correct adoption terminology and was completely surprised by one of the points you indicated Adam Pertman made in your phone conversation. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) who has adopted four beautiful children, I am appalled at the reference above regarding Mormons adopting children to “grow the flock”. That statement couldn’t be more erroneous! I have never heard of such a thing in all of my 52 years of being a Mormon! Really? Also, the idea that “many of them probably do love their children” made me cringe! Every LDS adoptive parent that I have met has deeply loved their adopted child! The family is central to the LDS religion and we value and cherish our children every bit as much as other wonderful parents who are not Mormon.

    All I ever wanted to be was a wife and mommy. We planned to start our family right after we got married. As I completed my degree in Psychology and began working on my Masters degree in Family Life Education, year after year went by without us being able to conceive. I finished my degrees and was deep into my career, all the while hoping for a child. After 5 years of desperately wanting a child and being unable to conceive, my husband and I were thrilled to finally adopt our first child. We had begun the beautiful journey of creating our family through the blessing of adoption. Four amazing birth mothers chose our family to adopt their children. They placed them into our arms out of love. Our children (ages 22, 20, 13 and 8) have many special needs including Type 1 Diabetes, mental Illness, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, learning disabilities, Seizure Disorder, Hydrocephalus and Cerebral Palsy. We have learned sign language in order to be able to communicate with our daughter who is non-verbal and unable to process verbal language. 22 years after we met our first child, I now look back on the whirlwind journey of wheelchairs, leg braces, standers, needles, insulin pumps, prescriptions, countless appointments with doctors, therapists, and counselors, fighting for services, working with lawyers to get services at school, sleepless nights, never-ending diaper changes, getting services and insurance for adult children with special needs, American Sign Language courses etc.and I’m pretty sure WE DID IT ALL BECAUSE OF LOVE!

    • I do appreciate your life, your comments, your sharing your experience, truly. Thank you. I do understand your reply. Through my conversation with Adam and through research toward my project, I became aware of the concept that people (historically) have made choices to build their families for various reasons. For example, some who chose to adopt did so mostly to increase their labor force on their farm/land. Some adopted in order to have descendents who could pay homage to already passed ancestors in order to fulfill a cultural requirement. I would describe my initial intentions for adopting as selfish and naive, and I am still a work in progress. I hear your heart, and I thank you.

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