Redefining “doula”

Doula Definition

The engineering of words.

All of you who know me know that I am a complete geek. I love to figure out the mechanics of things, how they work. When I was a kid, I used to take apart electronics and put them back together again to figure out how each part functioned. The same part of my brain has always been fascinated by etymology, the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. Studying etymology is like studying engineering, but the engineering of words, our language.

Particularly interesting to me is how the etymology of words regarding individual identities have changed throughout history; for instance, girl was used to refer to a child or young person of either sex. While the origin of the term is not known for certain, it may be related to Low German gör, meaning ‘child’. Boy is likely derived from the mid-13th century, boie, which meant “servant, commoner, knave” (generally young and male). These are examples of words, which, over time, have become words by which our society defines our children at or before birth (don’t get me started here… trying to stay on track).

Here are some other interesting etymologies: nice comes from the latin words nescius and nescire, meaning ‘ignorant’ or to ‘not know’. Smart comes from old English smeortan, meaning ‘causing sharp pain’. One that I think is particularly interesting is that identity, a word that we use to define ourselves as unique individuals, comes from the latin word idem, which means ‘same.’ Hm, and here I always thought I was a somewhat smart, nice person with a unique identity…

Semantics, the study of word meanings and word relations

The examples above (girl, boie, nice, smart, identity) serve as examples of how drastically definitions of words can change over time. There are many forces that lead to semantic change, as described by Blank[1] and Grzega[2]. Among the impetus for semantic change are cultural importance and worldview change. The more the word is used in popular culture, the more the definition molds to mean something new.

So, now, five paragraphs deep, I want to talk about doula. The word doula is derived from the greek word meaning ‘female slave;’ however, in the context of modern society, doulas include people of widely varying identities; and, while some offer volunteer services, others are paid large fees for their services. While the doula’s role is in the capacity of providing support, often to people in their reproductive journeys, we are not all female, and we are surely not slaves, just as all “boys” aren’t slaves just because the original definition is such. Thus, the semantics of doula have evolved to mean a support person who works with people and families in their reproductive journeys, lending physical and emotional comfort, reassurance, information, and presence, usually through pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Full spectrum doulas expand that level of support through loss, abortion and adoption. So, where do I stand as a doula? I am still on my journey redefining what it means for myself to be a doula, educating myself on how to be the best support through non-birth outcomes and dedicating myself to bridging disparities in reproductive health. In this respect, I am a nice, smart doula with a unique identity by the modern definitions of all of those words.

[1] Blank, Andreas (1999), “Why do new meanings occur? A cognitive typology of the motivations for lexical Semantic change”, in Blank, Andreas; Koch, Peter, Historical Semantics and Cognition, Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 61–90

[2] Grzega, Joachim; Schöner, Marion (2007), English and general historical lexicology: materials for onomasiology seminars (PDF), Eichstätt: Universität

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