CHANGELING.

I was taken aback to discover that the word changeling does not mean at all what I thought it did, at least according to the dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary can stand in for all the rest, since they all have these three senses in one or another order: “1. A child secretly exchanged for another. 2. Archaic A changeable, fickle person. 3. Obsolete A person of deficient intelligence.” To my wife and me, it means something entirely different: in the words of Wiktionary, “An organism which can change shape to mimic others” (and believe me, I was glad to find that there, proving my wife and I were not completely bonkers). Does anybody know the history of that sense (which presumably the OED will document when it gets around to the C’s)? And which senses are you familiar with?

Comments

  1. Google Books shows any number of hits from the 19th century that attest the sense I’m most familiar with: a child that has been put in the place of another, usually by fairies (in the context of the writing of 19th c. British fantasists). I would guess that “changeling” in the sense of “shapeshifter” is an artifact of Dungeons & Dragons or a similar game.

  2. I’m familiar with both “sense 1″ and the Wiktionary sense. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suppose that Sense “w” came directly from sense 1– the fairies replace your child with an organism that changes its shape to mimic the replaced child, right?

  3. marie-lucie says:

    For me too, the only meaning is the first one: a child secretly exchanged for another (eg fairies might steal a human child and substitute a fairy child). I don’t think I have ever heard people use the word (obviously my family would not have used this particular word), but I have seen it in print many times, probably while reading literary works alluding to fairy tales.
    I could see how the meaning could shift to “someone not quite normal”, since the fairies might have wanted to steal a normal child instead of their defective one, but “shape-shifter” does not make sense in the context of anything I have read.

  4. I’m only familiar with the fairy folklore sense. Sense 3 has a certain logic, since most “true” changeling stories that survive from the late-Renaissance/early-Modern era describe what most contemporary readers immediately recognize as autism-spectrum, developmental, or genetic disorders.
    I’ve never seen the changeling=shapeshifter sense in any context other than high fantasy fiction and RPGs, and it always triggers my irrational peeve response.

  5. I credit Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with teaching me the “changeling == shapeshifter” definition which, I admit, is the first that comes to mind for me when I encounter the word with no context (such as in seeing this blog post’s title in the RSS feed). But if I see it in print outside of a modern science fiction setting, I usually expect it to mean a replaced child.

  6. I know only one sense: a child secretly substituted for another, by fairies who want to steal the original. So that a child that seems a bit otherworldly – not a’ come – would of course be an obvious derived meaning. Whether the substituted child is a fairy isn’t altogether clear. If so, then you have the makings of the “shapeshifter” meaning: it’s fairy that can take the shape of a human child.

  7. I know both definitions, the mythological one and the sci-fi changling.
    The villains in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ‘The Founders’ are metamorphic aliens referred to as ‘changlings’ and ‘shapeshifters’
    An extension to the exchanged fairy child meaning is a ‘changling’ as a “peevish, sickly child. The notion used to be that fairies took a healthy child, and left in its place one of their starveling elves which never thrived”.

  8. FYI, Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog has a wealth of posts quoting original source materials and historical accounts of changeling lore.

  9. Barry Brenesal says:

    I seem to recall reading that changelings who were swapped in the cradle by various spirits were altered in physical appearance, so their original nature wouldn’t be immediately apparent to their human families. That may (or may not) provide the genesis of the modern fantasy literature use of changelings: creatures who can change their appearances at will.

  10. Dictionary_1 is the main (and pretty much the only) meaning for me. Your Wictionary meaning would be a chameleon or a shape-shifter to me.

  11. I think I’m vaguely familiar with your definition, but 1. is the most salient in my mind since it’s the exact same word in Danish, so I’ve heard it in ‘fairy’ tales as a kid.
    I guess 2. works by extension, but the origin supposedly is an attempt to explain infants that suddenly turn impossible to placate. Colic, perhaps?

  12. I only knew of this one.

  13. My primary association is sense 1. Like JRH & Eel, I know the shapeshifter sense from DS9, but when it was used on the show I remember thinking “that’s not really what ‘changeling’ means”.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Another vote for AHD sense 1 only. Although while I would have assumed that was the meaning intended by the Doors song (allowing for the ellipticality/incoherence of lyrics), actually googling up the lyrics online (which obv we couldn’t do 30-odd years ago when I would have first known the song) suggests something there a little more like AHD sense 2, although not quite.

  15. narrowmargin says:

    I’ve never heard it used other than as a child secretly exchanged for another. If I recall correctly, I first knew of that usage from reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in high school.

  16. Some people have suggested that the changeling myth arose to explain Down’s syndrome babies. They look normal at birth, but then their appearance becomes unlike other children and their actions are not like other children either. But this goes in the category of attempts to find a rational basis underlying mythological beliefs.

  17. mollymooly says:

    Only sense #1 for me. As in the 1980 movie. The 2008 movie fits #1 less well, though still better than #hat.

  18. I credit Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with teaching me the “changeling == shapeshifter” definition
    Ah, that may well be where I got it; I was a huge fan of DS9 (though Babylon 5 was even better).

  19. sense 1, and sense 3 via Eel’s derivation.
    This perception is probably distorted by the large volumes of Victorian/Edwardian horror and fantasy I read as a child..
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping
    than you can understand.
    Yeats, The Stolen Child
    Like HP, the latter-day SFF shapeshifter meaning provokes my inner unreasonable curmudgeon, though it is true he’s never far away; soon he will be me.

  20. I thought only of the “substituted baby” sense. (No, first I thought of “foundling” and then I thought no that’s a different word.)
    It’s funny: I used to watch Deep Space Nine, and I was interested in the character Odo. But I had totally forgotten that his kind — the Shape Shifters — were also called Changelings. It appears that my “that’s not really what ‘changeling’ means” reaction, if any, was short-lived.
    Down’s syndrome babies. [...] But this goes in the category of attempts to find a rational basis underlying mythological beliefs.
    I was thinking along different speculative lines, not so much rational as, I don’t know, sort of irrational. Anyway, psychological in the unscientific sense. Thinking that perhaps there is a more or less universal deep-seated reaction to becoming a parent: What is this thing that I’ve made? Sometimes it seems like a part of me, and other times it seems like an utterly alien being.

  21. I was familiar only with the “secretly exchanged baby” sense until I encountered the “shapeshifter” sense on “Deep Space Nine”, and I was moderately irritated with that usage, which I assumed some DS9 writer had invented.

  22. I guess I wasn’t exposed to many traditional Western fairy tales as a child; growing up in Japan, I heard stories about Kappa instead.

  23. To me it has always and only been an English word for Irish “iarlais”. Another English translation is “elf child”.

  24. I know “changeling” as “shapeshifter” from a life of too many role-playing games. There are shape-shifting humanoid “changelings” in Dungeons and Dragons, for example, and the trope has carried on to newer fantasy fiction and games.
    I’ve seen the swapped-baby sense of the word too, though I’ll be darned if I can remember where. Brian Froud? John Crowley? Fantasy of that stripe, anyway.

  25. I would only use the word with sense 1, but if I heard it used with your meaning, I’d be cool with it.
    the fairies replace your child with an organism that changes its shape to mimic the replaced child, right?
    Depends! Sometimes they replace it with something that looks similar, sometimes with an obviously fairy baby, sometimes with a straw dummy, an ice baby, etc. (cf Outside Over There).
    I would guess that “changeling” in the sense of “shapeshifter” is an artifact of Dungeons & Dragons or a similar game.
    Could be. (Note that the doppelgangers mentioned in the description are another race that has been granted shapeshifting powers. Hypothesis: In role-playing games, any monsters whose distinctive traits center around identity will over time lenite to shapechangers.)
    Personally, I blame Jim Morrison.

  26. I only know it as sense 1, from fairy tales. I would have guessed at 2 but never 3 or the Wikipedia/Hat version.

  27. I am pleased to remark that OED has it meaning “hypallage”, also:

    †5. The rhetorical figure Hypallage. Obs. 1589 G. Puttenham Arte Eng. Poesie iii. xv. 143 Hipallage, or the Changeling … as, he that should say, for tell me troth and lie not, lie me troth and tell not.

    But hypallage itself is a senseshifter, if ever there was one (or “were some”, to fit the case).
    I don’t see the LH meaning as strikingly different from the AHD second meaning. OED has it like this:

    1. One given to change; a fickle or inconstant person; a waverer, turncoat, renegade. arch.

    See one of the citations:

    1651 J. Howell S.P.Q.V. 45 Which have their being under that changeling the Moon.

    Yer moon is yer Urformwandler, wicht nar?

  28. John Roth says:

    I go with the first meaning, since that’s the one I’m familiar with both from fairy tails and a veritable tsunami of fantasy which seems to have been based on those self-same fairy tales.
    I can’t make the word itself fit the notion of a shapeshifter (werewolf, etc,) since those are cyclical, and the -ling suffix doesn’t, at least to me, indicate a shifting back and forth.

  29. I meant “wicht Nahr”, of course. Alternatively, it was a spoonerist changeling of “nicht War” – short for “nicht Warung”: no place for nutrition; not a warung. Or “kein Warung”, in non-Austronesian German. Keine Nahrung.

  30. Coming very late to the thread, I only know sense 1.
    Harry Potter features shapeshifters, and I don’t believe they’re called changelings, or the term would be more familiar to me.

  31. The moon is also associated with Narren, I believe.

  32. Also Wicht Narr as might be, the jesting elf-cousin of Knecht Ruprecht.

  33. I only know “changeling” in the fairytale sense as well. That may support the Babylon 5/DS 9 hypothesis because, although I’ve consumed a lot of scifi over the years, I haven’t watched those particular shows.

  34. The first sense. See: The Changeling, great novel by Kenzaburo Oe.

  35. michael farris says:

    For me (without reading every single other comment here) the main meaning is related to the first but without supernatural involvement. That is, it’s a child placed in a family environment to hide either its or a parents’ identity.
    This could be an older sibling (or grandparent) raising the child as their own when the birth mother is unable to handle the responsibility.In this sense Paulie Walnuts on the Sopranos was a changeling.
    It could also refer to extra-marital paternity (a woman becomes pregnant by a man who’s not her husband and she presents the child as his).
    I’m not sure how many other people share these definitions.
    It can also mean shapeshifter but I find myself irritated with such usage for a very geeky reason: It just adds a synonym without introducing a useful distinction. One of the terms should refer to a person who can assume a single form (such as a wolf) and the other should refer to a being which can assume multiple forms.
    We need precision, people!

  36. Bathrobe says:

    Ōe’s novel in Japanese is 取り替え子 (チェンジリング), i.e., Torikae-ko (chenjiringu), with English in katakana in parentheses. I haven’t read the novel, but it’s interesting that Ōe admitted to being heavily influenced by Yeats.
    Wikipedia has a rather long and detailed article on changelings.

  37. Like HP, the latter-day SFF shapeshifter meaning provokes my inner unreasonable curmudgeon, though it is true he’s never far away; soon he will be me.
    Agree almost completely – although in my case I believe the curmudgeon has taken over long since (wink to LH and Jamessal). To prove that, I’ll suggest the DS9 usage comes from a scriptwriter having heard a word vaguely but not knowing the correct meaning, and using it wrongly. And with the popularity of the show, leading millions to misunderstand the word … humph.
    Anyway, like many others I have only ever heard the “substituted baby” sense, usually by fairies but also the “baby in the warming pan”.
    [King]James[II of England]had no male heir by his marriage to Anne Hyde, but in June 1688 [his second wife] Mary of Modena gave birth to a son. Rumours circulated that the child was not the king’s son, but a baby smuggled into the room in a warming pan. The arrival of a male heir, destined to be raised as a Catholic, destroyed English hopes of a Protestant succession and prompted seven leading politicians to invite William of Orange – the husband of James’s daughter Mary – to claim the throne in the Glorious Revolution.

  38. Trond Engen says:

    Sili: 1. is the most salient in my mind since it’s the exact same word in Danish, so I’ve heard it in ‘fairy’ tales as a kid.
    I guess 2. works by extension, but the origin supposedly is an attempt to explain infants that suddenly turn impossible to placate. Colic, perhaps?

    I suppose you mean there’s an exact equivalent in Danish? But I can’t find a Danish form of the Norwegian equivalent bytting. (Equivalent in sense 1 & ~3 — though I’d rather say it means “misfit” than “person of deficient intelligence”.)

  39. Rodger C says:

    I know the word mainly in sense 1. Nowadays Williams syndrome is often invoked to explain the legend. Williams childen are wizened-looking, are “impossible to placate,” and have notable mental peculiarities and a distinct facial look.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williams_syndrome

  40. I agree with the above: Star Trek is always a likely culprit. If you ask me, writers love that show.
    And didn’t sci fi also invent “morph”?

  41. Here are the first OED citations for the verb:
    1982   Re; Killing Umbers in net.games.rogue (Usenet newsgroup) 15 Sept., A staff of polymorph can help too if you morph him into something ‘easy’.
    1991   Computer Pictures (Nexis) Apr., Every object in the scene … can be animated. 3-D objects can be scaled, squashed even morphed into other objects.
    And the noun (in the sense “The action, process, or technique of changing one image into another by morphing”):
    1991   Adweek (Nexis) 4 Mar., The ad uses a new computer-generated technique—‘morphs’—in which images are metamorphosized in real time.
    1992   Times 23 Dec. 10/5 The vampire’s transformation is drenched in blood, as if to cancel out the effortless skill of his ‘morph’ from man to beast.

  42. “Changeling” as a synonym of “shapeshifter” I learned through STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. As I recall we are told by one of these beings that the term “changeling” was originally pejorative: this may suggest that the writers of the show were familiar with sense 1.
    Shelley, Hat: there a SPACE:1999 episode, “The metamorph”, wherein we are introduced to the alien woman Maya, who can turn into any living creature (normally Maya would be said to “change” or “transform”, but “metamorph” may have been slipped in as a verb once in a while): this may have paved the way, so to speak, for the use of “morph” as a verb.

  43. I was aware of two senses: AHD’s first and the other one you mention, Hat. The latter is the sense I learned first, perhaps from ghost stories I read as a child or teenager.
    Once, when I was about 18, I was clearing my throat vigorously when someone entered the house: she took fright at the sound, let out a yell, and dashed in to confront what she subsequently said she expected would be “a changeling”. To her immense relief, it was only me.

  44. To clarify: the ‘changeling’ I was (and am) most familiar with was Wiktionary’s sense 1, where a human child has been replaced with a troll or some such creature.

  45. Stan: you’ve left the story half told, and the punters hanging. What I would like to know is, what was the social background of the woman ? Did she adhere to a brand of “animistic Christianity” ? I suspect that very few people, unless they have been primed to, expect to encounter changelings out of the blue.
    Since you were 18 at the time, she surely didn’t think it was you who might have been switched around, since it happens only with small children, as I have understood. Was there a small child in the house as well ? This is all rather puzzling.

  46. Stu: I thought the story would work better with fewer details. The woman in question was raised Catholic but I don’t know whether she practised as an adult, and I couldn’t comment on the shape and direction of her metaphysical beliefs — other than to add that, as far as I know, she entertained superstitious convictions about supernatural folklorish entities. So maybe she was primed.

  47. Trond,

    I suppose you mean there’s an exact equivalent in Danish? But I can’t find a Danish form of the Norwegian equivalent bytting. (Equivalent in sense 1 & ~3 — though I’d rather say it means “misfit” than “person of deficient intelligence”.)

    Skifting. But I see now that bytting exists too. I just don’t recall hearing, myself. My initial impression would have been to say that “bytting” should be translated as “exchangeling”.

  48. Rodger C says:

    As I recall we are told by one of these beings that the term “changeling” was originally pejorative: this may suggest that the writers of the show were familiar with sense 1.
    Or that one of them had encountered the word in print without really understanding what it meant.

  49. As if from analogy with other words having the diminutivizing postfix “-ling” that refer to something to be looked down on, such as hireling, footling and dumpling (i.e. the floury kind).

  50. Christopher Watson says:

    I was always familiar with the sense of a child swapped at birth for a fairy child. It’s a charming term.
    To me the use of ‘changeling’ to mean a magical being who changes shape is an ignorant use of the word exclusive to American popular culture. I would never use it that way, unless commenting on some ridiculous American TV show, which I never do.

  51. Well, I think that the use of “magical” in the context of sci-fi betrays an appalling ignorance of popular culture. Or a charming ignorance, maybe.

  52. @empty : I think that the use of “magical” in the context of sci-fi betrays an appalling ignorance of popular culture.
    Would you prefer to call sci-fi realistic ? The visual effects in sci-fi films have usually been magical in the past, and are today dramatically so. The plots are often of a strongly religious and moralizing nature, with Good and Evil pitted against each other. Even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has omnipotent civil servants up to no good.
    I remember, when seeing the first Stargate film years ago, being struck by the resemblance of the Anubis character to a vengeful God. I think that in Western societies sci-fi stories have taken that place in popular imagination once held by bible stories.

  53. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of sci-fi stories narrated in terms of primitive technology. Armageddon with Bruce Willis is a long overdue remake of Revelations.
    Actually I think science fiction is generally more Gnostic than approved-Christian.

  54. Oh, I’m not being serious.
    Some Christians would be shocked by your implicit suggestion that biblical miracles are magical.

  55. I wasn’t thinking of particular miracles (water into wine etc) so much as the general dramaturgy: the burning bush, driving demons out of pigs, wrestling with an angel, Pentecost, the Ascension, the plagues … Good stuff !

  56. It’s been a long while since I last wrestled with an angel. Sigh … It just occurs to me that the kidney stone I had 2 years ago may have been a divine message in a bottle (to which I was actually connected for a time in the hospital). I still have the stone in a little phial filled with fluid, perhaps I should take it to an exorcist for a closer reading.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    Driving demons out
    I had always thought that this activity referred to curing some psychological or psychotic problems, but I found a more concrete interpretation while reading some pages from the Dead Sea Scrolls in which there was a reference to driving demons out of a person by means of an enema.

  58. That might be a background reason for the phenomenon of Rhineland Catholics staging a run on the laxative market each Lent (as I reported here recently) !

  59. In general, purgative practices are not environmentally friendly. They just shift the shit somewhere else in the neighborhood. Future generations are left holding the shovel.

  60. Also, ghost stories and sequels to the Exorcist are premonitory recognitions that the world is not a bottomless garbage bin. In a closed, finite world what you throw away always comes back to haunt you.
    It would make more sense to retrain outcast demons to do useful work, like raking up the leaves in the autumn. Similarly, fecal matter can be recycled into hamburgers – on Arte I saw a documentary about a Japanese researcher doing just that.

  61. Do you mean dramaturgy or thaumaturgy?
    Where does purgatory shift the shit to? Do you have to dump it all before you ascend to Heaven?
    I noted as a teenager that Charlton Heston rhymes with intestine.

  62. Where does purgatory shift the shit to? Do you have to dump it all before you ascend to Heaven?
    You can’t take it with you, you know that. Actually you have identified the next environmental catastrophe waiting in the wings. I can see the headlines: “No More Room In Purgatory, Say Irate Commuters”.

  63. Or rather: “Sewers Clogged in Purgatory, Say Lenten Visitors”.

  64. The point of Purgatory, O ye iggerant Protestants, is to purify the soul, or to put it more modernly, to overcome the character defects that made you a sinner in the first place. And since Mount Purgatory is three thousand miles high, and doesn’t really get started until the top of Earth’s exosphere is reached (at least according to Dante), I doubt if there’s really much problem running out of room there.

  65. Mount Everest is littered with toilet paper and empty coke cans. Mount Purgatory is likely by now just as unsightly, due to piles of cast-off splintered personae and molted sinskins.

  66. Trond Engen says:

    The difference between purgatory and lavatory is just a matter of degree anyway. A degree in sanctuary engineering, I suppose.

  67. Er, that would be bottom of the exosphere, or perhaps Dante meant bottom of the stratosphere. Sorry about that. Anyway, above St. Peter’s Gate there is no usable atmosphere.

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