I kid you not

When R.E.M. sang “hey, kids” throughout “Drive,” listeners understood that Michael Stipe wasn’t addressing a group of baby goats. Similarly, the Indigo Girls were not saying they were scared of youthful livestock when they performed “Kid Fears.”

Yet, as reflected in this James Kilpatrick column, some still insist that “kids” should never be used as a synonym for children or young people. It’s all about goats.In one of his “court of peeves” pieces, Kilpatrick rules on a plea from readers who were “justifiably irked” with the use of “kids” in this Randy Cohen column in The New York Times Magazine. In his decision, Kilpatrick admits that several dictionaries recognize “kid” as a word meaning “child.” (The dictionary on my computer lists it as the first definition.) However, he waves off that evidence, siding with the readers: “Their motion will be emphatically granted.”

We need more testimony. I asked three copy editors what they thought of using “kid” this way in newspapers and news Web sites. Here are their answers:

Bill Cloud of UNC-Chapel Hill: I think “kid” is fine in casual uses. I wouldn’t change it in a column, for example, but would question its use in a crime story. We all talk about the wife, husband and kids.

Kathleen Flynn of The New York Times: Since starting to work at The Times in 2005, I have become ever more conservative about word choice and grammar, even in my off hours, even when I am not really thinking about it consciously. You might say I drank the Kool-Aid, but that would be far too informal to say in print. So, yes, I would avoid “kids” to describe young human beings in all but the most informal written usage. But I also have to recognize that I am probably in the minority here, and there is really nothing wrong with the word.
Bill Walsh of The Washington Post: I wouldn’t write “6 Kids Killed in Fire,” but for more casual references there’s nothing wrong with the word. As I recall, I wrote in “Lapsing Into a Comma” that the kids-are-goats argument “belongs in the assisted-living facility.”
My ruling: After weighing this expert testimony and reading the magazine column in question, I dissent from the Kilpatrick court. Although ethics is a weighty topic, Cohen writes in an informal way, which is part of his appeal as a columnist. Additionally, we as editors should grant some leeway (but not carte blanche) to columnists.

Thus, in this case, “kids” is all right.

UPDATE: Cohen responds and elaborates in a comment to this post. Thank you, Randy.



  1. I enjoyed the discussion of my use of "kids" in "The Ethicist," a pleasure not diminished by your endorsing my usage. I'd add one other factor that shaped my decision: my column is Q&A, and "kid" was used by the person who sent the query. ("Some thought she endangered our vaccinated kids.") I wanted to let the questioner to set the tone. Both the questioner and I likely would have employed more formal usage had her query involved more somber matters.

    All best,

    Randy Cohen

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