The Prince & The Passive Voice

In case you’ve been living in a cave, you’ll be aware that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge yesterday afternoon welcomed a baby boy into the world. The arrival of their bundle of joy was announced by Kensington Palace; stating the sex, weight and time of birth. This was followed by an official announcement of his birth, placed on an easel outside Buckingham Palace – the same easel used 31 years ago to announce the birth of his father, the Duke of Cambridge. For fellow language geeks, the announcement would have been interesting, given that it used a slightly unusual phrase:

“HRH the Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a son at 4.24pm today. Her Royal Highness and her child are both doing well.”

Most of the time, when talking about the miracle (or marathon!) of childbirth, we use the more common “gave birth to”, “delivered” or plain old “had”. The phrase “was delivered of” is in the passive voice, which we use all the time in English, however, the use of it in this context received a bit of criticism online.

Many people hadn’t seen this particular formulation of it in action before, whereas others felt that it was too anonymous a phrase to use. Indeed, its very name “passive voice” is a bit of a contradiction when we think about childbirth, what with it being a fairly…active process for the mother. Its use, many people reckon, could be an attempt to protect the dignity of the Duchess (I guess the tabloids didn’t get the memo) and, historically, would have made the whole process sufficiently vague, lest we dwell on the more unpalatable images that childbirth might bring to mind. Grammar, English, Cambridge, Passive Voice

It also provides a handy grey area for the doing of the action to hide in, seeing as “was delivered of” also has the meaning “was relieved of”, with the assumption (rightly or wrongly) that the relieving was done by someone else. Grammatically speaking, the passive voice is often used when the actor (i.e. whoever is doing the action) is unclear or irrelevant.

In the Bible, Hebrews 11:11 tells of the beautiful, but barren Sara, the wife of Abraham:

“Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.”

This use of the passive voice here seems to indicate that it was through her faith that Sara was able to conceive her child, rather than anything more traditionally…biological. Although this example isn’t related to childbirth specifically, but rather the prequel,* it does highlight the use of the passive voice to signal a certain ambiguity.

This got me thinking about grammatical oddities, obsolete words and old-fashioned phrases that make the English language such a treasure trove (and minefield) for language aficionados, so I’ve put it out on Twitter to get some favourites from fellow language geeks! I’d like to say “Tune in next time for more language lols**..” but I haven’t figured out how to do vlogs yet…so instead “Make sure you read the next blog!” (Hmmm. That’s not very catchy).

*I do apologise for the cheesy video, but I can’t help myself.
**Ironic use of “lol”.

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