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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

baby on board

(1980’s | “child in car”)

Strictly an eighties phenomenon in the U.S., these signs, designed to stick to the inside of a car window and look like miniature roadside warnings of sharp curves and other hazards, were imported from Germany (“Baby an Bord” or “Kind [child] an Bord”), where they were in use by 1980. By 1985, they were a fixture on American roads, and by 1986, the backlash had begun, both in the form of innumerable parodies and law-enforcement crackdowns, justified on the grounds that the signs obstructed the driver’s view. The manufacturer, ironically, touted them as safety equipment, and there were two common arguments for their use: they alert other drivers to be solicitous of the precious cargo inside, and they alert police and paramedics to ditto. (In my suburban youth, it was common to see stickers on house windows telling the fire department where the children’s rooms were.) Unbelievers tended to ascribe obnoxious parental officiousness to those who so decorated their cars, an uncharitable interpretation, but probably not far wide of the mark in many cases. The fad rose quickly and fell slowly; “Baby on board” remained common in back windshields for some time, though you see them much less often now. But they have never shed the taint cast by the quick rise and reaction of the eighties.

Parenthood has become more demanding since my parents were in the business, and “Baby on board” was part of that evolution — yet another precaution parents might fail to take, thus endangering their children instead of protecting them. I’ve commented before on the oppressive growth of parenting as competitive sport, or competitive anguish, and on changes in standards and expectations for those unlucky enough to give birth. Whether intended as a sinister marketing scheme or not, “Baby on board” signs did their bit to harass new parents, promising increased safety, or at least a chance of it, at a low price. It wasn’t just fear of losing a young child because you hadn’t told first responders to look for him. It was a quick, cheap way of avoiding the appearance of negligence, and what parent wouldn’t want that?

Why doesn’t “baby on board” mean pregnant? Now it does, sometimes, but I don’t recall anyone using it that way, or understanding it that way, even in a fit of explication du texte. Khloe Kardashian used it to mean “having very young babies in the house” in a trailer for the next season of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” (a modern-day soap opera), alluding to the newborns produced by members of the clan, and it may be used, with a hint of jocularity, to refer to expectant mothers as well (as in “if you have a baby on board, you can expect . . .”). It feels to me like the shift to this usage has been slower and less general than you might expect. For reasons unclear to me, some expressions never stray far from their original senses, while others fan out far and wide. “Baby on board” strikes me as an example of the former that ought to be an example of the latter.


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