Defining “Adolescent” in Time and Loci

· Etymology


Defining common words may seem trite, but with the addition of reflection on their etymology, and the confines that these words may have in the context of a certain language groups – which limits a meaning to specific generations of people – and even to certain countries – we note barriers which are somewhat insurmountable in the comprehension of old writings – not to mention cross-cultural understanding.  This document is a reflection on terms related to part of the journey to adulthood.  It came about after reading of a definition of “adolescent” with which the present writer disagreed.  By taking advantage of priorly-acquired linguistic skills, we go not only into current meanings, but also into past definitions of dictionaries which probably collect more dust than consultations, as well as making forays – through web tools – into languages outside of the immediate ken of our Indo-European capabilities.  After considering the material, we show how the upper age-limit for the terms discussed has been lowered at an ever-increasing tempo, offer a definition which encompasses all those examined of the last 300 years, and show that the terms are uniquely English.


The Definitions of “Adolescent” and “Adolescence”


Opportunities for Further Analysis

An Extra-Lexical Definition of Adolescence

Approximations to the Term “Adolescent” in Non-Romance Languages

Cross-cultural Difficulties with “Teenager”




In early June of the year 2016, a web-page was found which mentioned spurious research done at some universities in the interest of professors trying to retain tenure or perks.  The present author hopes that this work is above such frivolous writings, but were that not to be the case, he wishes the reviewer to note that no immediate advantages are seen by the publication of the present document, as all has been done without having any professorship to retain, or income to gain.  Rather, the objective is simply to share discoveries and reflections resulting from a disagreement with the definition of the word “adolescent”, and consequently, “adolescence” and “teenager”.  We went as far back into the past as reasonably possible with Google Books – in English, French, and Spanish – in addition to consulting a handful of printed works in our private library.  These revealed, as a collateral benefit, that we barely know the meaning of the word “man” as known in the past, and as it might be convenient to understand in the present.  It is our belief that the original concept would satisfy the requirements of the genders which are held to exist at the time of this writing. [Specifics are not spelled out, because, while this may be a form of self-censorship, the idea contained in that last sentence should be sufficiently clear, and this article can thus be accessed without prohibition – it is hoped – throughout the world.]

While looking at the Romance language strand of the shifting meanings of our word “Adolescence”, we also have considered other languages.  Furthermore, we asked ourselves, “Do we know the meaning of ‘adolescence’, of ‘teenager’, or even of ‘man’; and what limitations are there to making these words understood in other languages?

We start recounting the oldest-found uses of the “A” words. In order to retain the “flavor” of these, we have retained, when used, the originally spelling of words with the long “s”, is shown in browsers as “ſ”.


For those who have skipped the previous paragraph, “ſ”, or something not rendered by the reader’s browser, should be understood as “s”.  We have retained this old form for the sake of authenticity.

For convenience in finding the original sources, information on the Google Books was kept as originally written, rather than making modifications to reflect modern referencing style.  Exceptions were made at first, but these will be changed back. Redundancy in the year of publication is a deliberate choice, partly to assist finding the works on line. Links are only given when considered highly convenient to do so.


The Definitions of “Adolescent” and “Adolescence”


Definitions in the English Language

1706: Adoleſcency: the flower of Youth, the State from 12 Years of Age to 21 in Women; or from 14 to 25 or 30 in Men. .  – The new world of words: or, Universal English dictionary. Containing an account of the original or proper sense and various significations of all hard words derived from other languages … Together with a brief and plain explication of all terms relating to any of the arts and sciences … to which is added, the interpretation of proper names. John Kersey. Printed for J. Phillips, 1706 –

1717: Adoleſcency: Youth.  Elisha Coles,  An English Dictionary Explaining the Difficult Terms that are uſed in Divinity, Husbandry, Phyſick, Philoſophy, Law, Navigation, Mathematicks, and Other Arts and Sciences, S. Collins,

1749: ADOLESCENCY or ADOLESCENCE (etymology +) the flower of youth, from fourteen to twenty-five years of age.  Benjamin Martin.  Lingua Britannica Reformata: Or, a New English Dictionary, Under the Following Titles, Viz. I. Universal; … VIII. Philosophical; … To which is Prefix’d, an Introduction, Containing a Physico-grammatical Essay on the Propriety and Rationale of the English Tongue. Printed for J. Hodges; S. Austen; J. Newbery; J. Ward; R. Raikes, at Gloucester; J. Leake, and W. Frederick, at Bath; and B. Collins, at Salisbury,

1755: Adolescence. The age ſucceeding childhood, and ſucceeded by puberty; more largely, that part of life in which the body has not yet reached its full perfection. Samuel Johnson.  A Dictionary of the English Language: In which the Words are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, to which are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar, Volume 1. W. Strahan, 1755.

1757: Adoleſcence Linguae Britannicae Vera Pronunicatio, or, A New English Dictionary… James Buchanan  Adolescence  James Buchanan. Miller, 1757.

1760: Adolescence: the prime, or youthful part of a man’s age, after he is grown to some maturity of understanding, commonly reckoned from fourteen to twenty five years of age. A new general English dictionary; to which is prefixed a compendious English grammar, begun by T. Dyche and finish’d by W. Pardon. Thomas Dyche, William Pardon. 1760.

1764: ADOLESCENCE the flower of youth, commencing from his infancy, and terminating at is full ſtature of manhood, that is, from 15 to 25 years of age; and in women from 12 to 21. A new, complete, and universal English dictionary [by J. Marchant and – Gordon]. To which is prefixed, a new compendious grammar of the English language, by D. Bellamy John Marchant (gent.), Daniel Bellamy, Gordon

1773: Adolescence, adolescency : the Flower of Youth; the State from Fourteen to Twenty-five or Thirty in Men; and from Twelve to Twenty-one Years of Age in Women.  The Universal Etymological English Dictionary:: In Two Parts: Containing, I. An Additional Collection 1. Of Some Thousands of Words Not in the Former Volume with Their Etymologies and Explications … 2 Of a Considerable Number of Terms of Art … 3 Of Proper Names of Persons and Places in Great Britain … 4. The Theogony, Theology, and Mythology of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, &c. … II. An Orthographical Dictionary …Nathan Bailey, T. Cox, 1773.  [Double colon on cover of book as shown.  Titles here from “About this book” do not seem to match.]

1780: ADOLESCENCE; ADOLESCENCY.  The age ſucceeding childhood, and ſucceeded by puberty.  A General Dictionary of the English Language, Volume 1. Thomas Sheridan, J. Dodsley … ; C. Dilly … ; and J. Wilkie, 1780

The next two definitions are exactly the same as above, so will not be repeated – only the source will be given.

1788: Adolescence:  William Perry. The Royal Standard English Dictionary: In Which The Words are Not Only Rationally Divided Into Syllables, Accurately Accented, Their Part of Speech Properly Distinguished, and Their Various Significations Arranged in One Line; But, Likewise, by A Key To This Work, … To Which Is Prefixed, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. The Fifth Edition. To which is Now Added the Scripture Proper Names, Together with the Names of the Principal Cities …  Murray; Bell; Dickson.

1792: ADOLESCENCE; ADOLESCENCY. Samuel Johnson A dictionary of the English language. Abstracted from the folio ed., by the author. To which is prefixed, A grammar of the English language,  1792. [The same definition was simultaneously given to both words.]

1824: ADOLESCENCE, or ADOLESCENCY, (etim), the state of a growing youth, commencing from his infancy, and ending at his full growth; and lasting as long as the fibres continue to increase in dimensions or firmness, commonly computed to be between 15 and 25 if not 30 years of age.  The Romans computed it from 12 to 25 in males and to 21 in females.  A Complete and Universal English Dictionary: Including Not Only an Explanation of Difficult Words and Technical Terms in All Faculties and Professions … To which are Added, a Chronological Series of Remarkable Events …  James Barclay, William Shorton Baynes, 1824.

1857: ADOLESCENCE, The state of growing, applied to the young of the human race; youth, or the period of life between childhood and manhood.

ADOLESCENT, Growing, advancing from childhood to manhood [as adjective only – present author’s note]. An American Dictionary of the English Language: Exhibiting the Origin, Orthography, Pronunciation, and Definitions of Words, Abridged from the Quarto Ed. of the Author: to which are Added a Synopsis of Words Differently Pronounced by Different Orthoëpists, and Walker’s Key to the Classical Pronunciation of Greek, Latin, and Scripture Proper Names Noah Webster. J.B. Lippincott, 1857

1859: ADOLESCENCE, The age succeeding childhood.  American Pronouncing Dictionary of English Language. Alexander H. Laidlaw. Crissy & Markley, Goldsmiths’ Hall, Library Street, 1859.

1872: ADOLESCENCE, ADOLESCENCY, The period of youth. Chambers’s [sic] English Dictionary: Pronouncing, Explanatory, and Etymological With Vocabularies of Scottish Words and Phrases, Americanisms, etc. James Donald, ed. W. & R. Chambers, London, 1872.  The missing title page is at this link.

1887 (1872): ADOLESCENCE Youth. ADOLESCENT Advancing from childhood to manhood.  A Dictionary of the English Language … abridged from the latest edition of the quarto dictionary of Noah Webster    William G. Webster and William A. Wheeler, New York: Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor and Co. 1872. (Many editions exist, both earlier and later.  Data for 1887 has been lost, or may have been a transposition of 1878, linked here.)

1919: adolescent, n. & a. Person growing up, between childhood and manhood (14 to 25) or womanhood (12 to 21) So adolescence, -ency.  Oxford Dictionary of Current English, adapted by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, Oxford, 1919 London

The following, – because of copyright considerations – usually paraphrases, are taken from newer books, whether in the author’s library, or quoted on line. It may be observed how the meanings of the words change subtly over time, especially since the years of European Fascism.

1934: The definition is the same as in our 1919 entry above, except that “person” is now in parenthesis.  We have the complete etymology, French from Latin, AD + a form of the verb olere, to grow. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 3rd ed., adapted by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, London: Oxford, 1919.

¿1952? With slight rewording, the definition is the same as in 1857 and 1919 above.  It substitutes “growing up” for “growing”, and adds “womanhood” to “manhood”.  The definition for adolescent as a noun specifies “boy or girl growing up (between the ages of 13 and 21)”.  A.S. Hornby. Idiomatic and Syntactic English Dictionary, London: Oxford, ¿1952? [Title page missing].

1962: The same author, in conjunction with others, defines adolescence as the period between childhood and maturity, adding, in brackets, manhood and womanhood. New is that it is the growth during this period.  For “adolescent”, we get a similar idea, with the age defined as 12 or 13 to 20.  A.S. Hornby, E.V. Gatenby, et. al., The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, 2nd Ed., London: Oxford, 1962.

1974: Hornby, again with others, suppressed the part about manhood and womanhood. The remaining definitions are unchanged. A.S. Hornby, A.P. Cowie, and A.C. Gimson, The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, 3rd Ed., London: Oxford, 1974.

1981:  A dictionary which disagrees with the etymology given above, speaks of types of development “from the onset of puberty to maturity”. We might quibble over whether that includes the onset of both stages, or just the first.  Other definitions refer to words of the same root,  adolescere comes from alescēre, to grow, “to be nourished”, and ultimately from alere, to nourish. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1981.

1981: The same publisher repeats the preceding in the principal definition. The word “adolescency” reappears, marked as an archaism. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language – Unabridged. [Since the principal copyright was acquired in 1961, and the new one probably refers to the addenda, perhaps this entry should be further above.]

1983: Adolescence, in one of 3 definitions, is described as “the period of life from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority”. A second definition of “adolescent” has crept in, with the meaning of immaturity as related to I.Q. or E.Q. (our rewording).  The etymology seems to be a blend of that given in Oxford, further above, and the American Heritage Dictionary, sending the reader first to “adult”, then to “old”, where it is finally the same as above, without noting the long “e” of alescere.  Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster.

1995: We now have an inclusive definition of adolescence, and an adjustment for the age of those passing through this stage: “time … when he or she …develops from a child into an adult … roughly between …13 and 17”. The citation joins the two definitions.  A.S. Hornby, Oxford’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, 5th Ed., Ed. Jonathan Crowther. London: Oxford, 1995.


Current  English Definitions Online gives, for adolescent, a definition ultimately coming from Princeton University’s WordNet 3.0, and agreeing with American Heritage’s Roget’s Thesaurus (supposedly), that an adolescent is someone either “of the age 13 through 19” or “usually” between those same ages. Definitions come from sources copyrighted in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

We have selected one medical definition, from, which claims that adolescence is “considered” to be from 13 to 19. It emphasizes all the bodily changes, and has the novelty in that it states that this is the time in which one becomes “adult-like in behavior”.- Puberty and adolescence | University of Maryland Medical Center.


The Above English Definitions Analyzed

We have presented definitions spanning 310 years.  In doing so, we discover the obsolete term “adolescency”, note how the long “s” or “ſ” finally becomes modernized,   We have started with “the State from 12 Years of Age to 21 in Women; or from 14 to 25 or 30 in Men”, and end with “13 and 17” in Oxford dictionaries, which would seem to approximate the idea that adolescence ends when one is legally an adult, as defined in Webster’s, or 13 to 19, twice given above, which would suggest “teen-agers”.  It would be difficult to speak of statistical significance when even if all dictionaries ever published were to be considered – the authors would be too few, – yet some patterns can be observed.

First, have we considered dictionaries for all generations over those three centuries?

If we take a generation as being 30 years, we have at least one definition for each period. The following chart shows the result.  It excludes the Merriam Webster Third International Dictionary, and one or two others, which gave mere word-for-word repetitions of previous publications. Re-editions were not at all considered, unless something new was provided, which we find happening with the Oxford works by Hornby.


frequency Chart

Frequency per 30 – Year Period – Dictionaries Defining “Adolescence”

The oldest definitions often require further investigation.  What are we to understand, exactly, by “the flower of youth”?  Which definition of flower applies, and which, of youth, which has appeared as a one-word explanation?

The most confusing characterization is the one which is worded “the age ſucceeding childhood, and ſucceeded by puberty”.  We must hold this to be flat wrong, unless the author of the dictionary concerned had something special in mind for the two stages of life mentioned.  Below, we will give his definition of puberty – and again, it is arguable that the meaning given is correct for us moderns, or that it was even valid usage at the time the relevant dictionary was written. It is to be noted that the Merriam-Webster, in contrast, defines adolescence as beginning at puberty, and not as a stage followed by the same.

Our 1764 definition also shows marks of delirium – “the flower of youth, commencing from his infancy, and terminating at is full ſtature of manhood, that is, from 15 to 25 years of age; and in women from 12 to 21”  It would seem that adolescence, by this definition, is not a period from 12 or 15 to 21 or 25 years of age, but the time from birth to the attainment of one of the ages just cited.

Our Merriam-Webster Collegiate gives the first usage of the word “adolescent” as having occurred in the year 1785.  Indeed, we have not found it in works published before that time.  However, the first date of usage of words such as adolescence and adolescency has not been determined.

Our 1824 definition is the most complete, but still includes the debatable term, infancy.

For the modern reader, what is most useful, in this writer’s view, is given in the Merriam-Webster, which emphasizes the legal aspect.  This solves the problem of vagueness – which has been heretofore a constant – especially considering that not only do we have a wide range of ages, but that even these may be further qualified by a word such as “roughly”, which is what was found in the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (5th). As for maturity, there are adults which may not have met the physiological, intellectual, or psychological criteria required.


Defining the Definitions: Inclusion or Exclusion

Youth: We have about 10 usages of this term in our definitions.  We define “youth” from the 1872 Chambers Dictionary, probably because the search for the reference books did not yield results in chronological order.  The definition is this:

YOUTH: … a young person; young persons taken together

This, in turn, required a definition for “young”: the pertinent results being: “not long born”, etc, “inexperienced”.  These results will not be useful for a reader unfamiliar with the standard usage of the English language.

Our definitions about moving from childhood to manhood would seem to offend some modern women.  We therefore investigated:

MANHOOD: State of being man (1st def.)

We proceed to question ourselves by what is meant by “man”

MAN 1. A human being … 3. The human race; sometimes the male part of the race.

Both of the above are from the 1887 Webster – Wheeler dictionary.  While there seems to be agreement that “man”, in its Germanic form, refers to humans first of all, and would thus be an inclusive term, the original etymological root, MAN-, is defined (circularly!) as “man”.  At any rate, once “woman”, from German elements meaning “wife-man” exists, we see that the males of the species apparently took majority control over what was meant to be understood. Whether or not the authors of the dictionaries which used the word man or manhood kept women in mind, is something which must be assumed – under the principle of granting the benefit of the doubt – given the informality and excessive conciseness employed at the time.  Certainly, 200 years ago, no one was worried about giving offence to someone several generations into the future!

Nevertheless, the Pardon – Dyche (1760) work offers: MAN: that human creature that is endowed with reaſon and ſpeech, under which both the ſexes are comprized, tho’ in common ſpeech it means only the male.

We may thus conclude, that as far as the meaning of the “M” word is concerned, more is included than excluded. For the sake of lexical definitions, the missing element may be considered as a moot point – those who are accustomed to using dictionaries of languages with nouns having gender, often find the feminine form not given, in the same way that many smaller bilingual works do not concern themselves with listing the irregular verb forms in the alphabetical section – under the assumption that the user should already be acquainted with what the missing words would be.

As noted in the previous section, there is also a certain emphasis on the term “puberty”, which in the Sheridan, et. al. book of 1780 has its meaning written as:

PUBERTY  The time of life in which the two ſexes begin first to be acquainted.

This could either mean that puberty begins precociously for some people, or that “to be acquainted” is some kind of codified language.  All in all, this is another baffling definition of an already confusing one.

We have also asked ourselves the meanings which an author might give to infancy, for which we got “childhood” as a result. The same dictionary (Marchant) did not define that term, but under “child” he gives:

Child, or infant [sic], in the Civil Law, ſignifies one under ſeven years of age.


French Definitions

[Subject to correction! Entries in their present form serve as backup to original data. ]

The chief term of this essay is written the same in French as in English. We have found approximately 6 definitions in books of the public domain, the earliest being from 1694.

ADOLESCENCE. ſ. f. L’âge qui eſt entre la puberté & la majorité, c’eſt à dire, depuis quatorze ans juſqu’à vingt-cinq. Dans ſon adoleſcence. Il ne ſe dit que des garçons.

ADOLESCENT. ſ. M. Jeune garçon.    Dictionnaire de l’academie francoise. Coignard, 1694

1772: Translation: p. 58: “Adolescent” under “AGE” “… [once] capable of reason. [T]Here begins the age of puberty, which ends at 14 for males, and 13 in females.  This age is followed by adolescence, which extends up to the twenty-fifth year.”   Nouveau dictionnaire universel et raisonné de médecine, de chirurgie, et de l’art vétérinare: contenant des connoiſſances étendues ſur toutes ces parties, des détails exacts & précis sur les Plantes uſuelles, & le traitement des maladies des Beſtiaux. , Volumen 1.  Paris: Hérissant le fils, 1772.

In the following, the spelling “François” is not a copying error, it occurs 100 times (as shown through “Search”) vs. once for “Français”.

ADOLESCENT, jeune homme arrivé a l’âge de puberté.  Monde Primitif Analysé et Comparë avec le Monde Moderne, Considéré Dans Les Origines Françoises; Ou Dictionnaire Étymologique De La Langue Françoise    Chez L’Auteur, 1778 (Paris, author Court de Gebelin).

In the case of the next item found, the entire description is worth reading (pp. 271-5), but we select the following:

… à mesure que l’adolescence approche ou se développe, … la poitrine devient de plus en plus le terme principal des congestions. … Il en résulte que l’âge dont nous parlons dispose aux hémorrhagies nasales, aux angines du larynx et du pharynx, et aux phlegmasies de l’appareil respiratoire. … (p. 275).  Encyclopédie moderne, ou, Dictionnaire abrégé des sciences, des lettres et des arts: avec l’indication des ouvrages ou les divers sujets sont développés et approfondis, Volumen 1.   Eustache Marie Pierre Marc Antoine Courtin  Paris: Chez Mongie Ainé, 1823.

ADOLESCENCE s. f. L’âge qui sucède a l’enfance et qui commence avec les premiers signes de la puberté … Dans le langage scientifique adolescence et jeunesse sont synonymes et expriment l’âge compris entre l’enfance et l’état adulte. Mais dans le langage ordinaire il ya une nuance, et adolescence désigne de préférence la première partie de la jeunesse. …
ADOLESCENTE, ENTE …, s. m. et f. …2e Se dit surtout de garçons, et alors souvent en plaisantant. … (p. 56)  Dictionnaire de la langue française, Volumen 1.  Emile Littré. Hachette, 1873.


Période de la vie entre l’enfance et l’âge adulte, pendant laquelle se produit la puberté et se forme la pensée abstraite.  Taken from:

1983: (Partial translation): Adolescence: Age following infancy (about from 12 to 18 among girls, and 14 to 20 among boys).  Adolescent, ente. The definition here gives a gender – inclusive version of the 1694 definition, specifying girls along with boys, and adds that these are in the age of adolescence. Micro Robert Dictionnaire du  Français Primordial. (Hard copy used)

Cet article est extrait de l’ouvrage « Larousse Médical ».

Période de l’évolution de l’individu, conduisant de l’enfance à l’âge adulte.

Elle débute à la puberté (vers 11-13 ans chez la fille, 13-15 ans chez le garçon) et s’accompagne d’importantes transformations biologiques, psychologiques et sociales. –.


Above French Definitions Analyzed

The first definition found in French predates what we have in English by 12 years, and at first sight, seems to be more sexist, in referring to “homme”, but the term, as in the case with “man”, may include both male and female. This does not seem to be valid in the case of defining “adolescent” as “jeune garçon”, but we presume that the reader is expected to automatically know that the feminine version, adolescente, would be jeune fille, or young lady. This is because, for reasons of economy, the feminine forms are usually not given. The 1823 source is scientific for its time, but incomprehensible in focussing upon congestion of the chest cavity, nose bleeding, and such-like. One source differentiates between popular and scientific use.  Some definitions parallel the English, while our only one which gives a range of ages, begins at 14 and ends at 25 in the old books consulted.

To be noted is that the medical definition of Larousse gives a 3 year span as the beginning of adolescence both for males and females, and gives no particular age for the finalization of this part of one’s life.  The Robert, however, has adolescence starting a year sooner.


Spanish Definitions

Note: In the old definitions below, the spellings may reflect older styles.  Special care was  taken to preserve these.

1783: ADOLESCENCÍA  La edad desde catorce hasta veinte y cinco años.

[loose translation: from 14 to 25 years of age]   D. Joachin Ibarra,  Diccionario de la lengua castellana compuesto por la Real Academia Española, reducido á un tomo para su más fácil uso. 2a Ed.

1852: ADOLESCENCIA. La edad que corre desde los catorce años cumplidos en los varones y doce en las hembras hasta los veinte y cinco. … El adolescente ó adulto sale de la tutela; … puede ser testigo en las causas civiles, y también en las criminales si pasa de veinte años; … y está sujeto ya á las penas legales, bien que se le rebajan ó disminuyen miéntras no ha cumplido los diez y siete años.  Joaquín Escriche, Diccionario razonado de legislación y jurisprudencia,  Librería de Rosa, Bouret y Cia.

The above is the most complete legal definition we have found, and probably reflects the Napoleonic Code.  Here is our translation: “the age starting at the end of the fourteenth year of males, and the twelfth year in females, up to the twenty-fifth year. … the adolescent or adult [sic] is released from tutelage … and can be a witness in civil proceedings, and also in criminal trials, if 20 years have passed, … and is subject to legal penalties, which may be mitigated or lessened if under 17 years of age”.  Our translation may have missed some legal subtleties.

1852: Repetition of the definition of 1783. Estab. Tip. de F. de P. Mellado.

Ramón Campuzano. Diccionario manual de la lengua castellana, arreglado á la ortografía de la academia española, y el mas completo de cuantos se han publicado hasta el dia.

 1861: see next

 1866: ADOLESCENCIA. f. Edad en que empieza la época de la pubertad, y se extiende hasta que el cuerpo ha tomado su perfección física, que comunmente se cuenta de los 14 á los 22 ó 25 años … Úsase también hablando de otras cosas en estilo muy elevado, como la justicia y la virtud reinaben en la ADOLESCENCIA del mundo. Novísimo diccionario de la lengua castellana con la correspondencia catalana … redactado con presencia del de D Pedro Labernia, Volumen 1.  Espasa (text also found later as having been previously printed in 1861).

To avoid repetion, the above is an amalgam of the two Royal Spanish Academy definition in this section, i.e., the first and the last given, the former giving a specific age bracket (omitting termination at 22), while the latter tome refers to the completion in physiological terms.

1978: Our translation: period of transition between infancy and adulthood.  Adolescent: one who is in the state of adolescence. Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado.

1979: A slight change in wording, using “transition” from childhood to adulthood for adolescence. Adolescente is given only as a noun, a person in adolescence.  María Moliner, Diccionario de uso del español, Madrid: Editorial Gredos.

1983: Strictly considered in its etymological aspect, the word adolescente is reported to have entered the Spanish language from Latin, in the first half of the 15th Century, whence it may have either an “o” or a “u”, The Latin noun for young man is said to be derived from the active participle of adolescere, to grow. Joan Coromina, Breve Diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana, 3a ed., Editorial Gredos.

1992 Our translation: Age spanning the time from childhood beginning with puberty and continuing until full development of the body is attained. For adolescent, same definition as under 1978.  Diccionario de la Lengua Española, 21a Ed., Real Academia Española.

Of the few definitions shown, 3 mention that the age starts at 14, one adding that it starts at 12 for girls.  Three have this period of life ending at 25, with one allowing that this may happen as early as in the 22nd year. A further comment may be seen under the 1852 legal definition. Our best way of considering these is graphically. [See next section.]

An interesting false etymology can be found in relation to the Spanish, the word adolencia, meaning suffering, by which one is to understand that these are painful years.  A poignant coincidence, without doubt! [This link is in Spanish.]

Chart Summarizing the English, French and Spanish Variations in the Definitions of the Age of an Adolescent.

Adolescents getting Younger

Table Showing Gradual Reduction in Maximum Age of an Adolescent


Opportunities for Further Analysis

It would be appropriate to examine Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian, as the challenge would not be too daunting for someone familiar with Spanish, but this must be postponed until an opportunity arises.


An Extra-Lexical Definition of Adolescence

We have looked at about 3 dozen definitions, but we had remembered an interesting concept read back in the 1970s.  It defined the age of an adult as 21.  The reason, it was read, that adulthood was reached at this time, was that this was the moment when one was old enough to wear a suit of armor.  Not having access to a small circulation paper from back in the late 20th Century, we checked to see if anything existed on the Internet to back up this memory.  Stanley H. Brandes in the Encyclopedia of Adult Development, Robert Kastenbaum, editor (Oryx Press Greenwood Publishing Group, 1993 Phoenix, Arizona) shows, in his article “Age 21”, that such was the situation as early as the 13th Century.  The Metropolitan Museum has an article which would seem to give the lie to the preceding, in that it mentions armor made for children and young men.  It is reported that some women wore the same, but that no contemporary illustration exists, by which we understand either that the women were not famous enough, that the men felt ashamed, or that if any depiction of Joan of Arc garbed in metal was not the result of artistic licence, finally someone was honest enough to show the truth.


Approximations to the Term “Adolescent” in Non-Romance Languages

We close with some considerations of the problem of translation of the terms under discussion in this essay.  We see, that for the purposes of translation, we must accept words that are as hazy in expressing the true nature of what we are talking about, as would be a ten-word summary of the definitions here assembled from the last 300 years.

Having kept a German dictionary near-at-hand, we find that there is a word, Jugendliche, a legal term for those individuals from 14 to 18 years of age.  The same source gives a surprising German usage of the word “Teenager”, a girl, and rarely a boy, of between 13 and 19.  What is strange is not the age, but the apparent restriction, which, to further astound the reader, is considered a “masculine” noun. – Der Sprach Brockhaus, 1979.  The 1996 Die neue deutsche Rechtschreibung, [Bertelsmann],  changes this slightly: “ … girl … also boy …”.

Since the time the above dictionary was written, the authorities have made some changes to the German language, but not to this word.

We have attempted, through, to render the word “adolescent” in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, and Russian, and tried to translate back into English, German, or Spanish, in a meaningful way.  The results came back with variants of teenager, and only in Spanish did we get adolescent for a Japanese word. Here is what we extracted, though for other users, results may vary:

Russian: подростковый возраст

Arabic  مرحلة المراهقة

Greek to German, Greek to Russian:

εφηβική ηλικία: Teenageralter; подростковый возраст

Chinese to Russian, Chinese to English:

青少年: подросток, teens

The point of the Russian translation was to see if the same word would appear as in the Greek to Russian.

青少年  Teenager  teens  (adolescent given as a 2nd translation)

Japanese to German, English, and Spanish:

思春期の   Jugendliche,   Adolescent,    adolescente


Cross-cultural Difficulties with “Teenager”

The concept of what is informally called a teen, with some variants available, teener, teeny-bopper, and in German, teeny or teenie, is also something which is not possible to succinctly translate.  Considering the suffix, we must find an exact equivalent.  Can this be done? While our sample of languages show that often the prefix, suffix, or a separate word meaning “ten” is used, there is no consistency, and therefore, no word for “teenager” exists. Let us see this:

Translating "Teen"

Chart showing that the Concept of “Teen”-Ager is not Possible in Other Cultures. Click image to enlarge.



From what we have seen, we trace the idea of adolescence not only through etymology, but through an actual definition, which (in Latin) would go back to the Romans, who defined a man as one who had to reach his 25th or 30th birthday.  A younger age was assigned for a women’s maturity.

The definitions, whether in dictionaries, or in the consideration given to the age of adulthood as 21 in the previous section, start off by emphasizing a transition between childhood and full growth, beyond which there is only unmentioned ageing. We see some suggestion of a bifurcation: legal, or physical.  From the former point of view, a maximum age can be defined without considering actual maturity, in the same way that minors are tried, in some countries, in adult courts, and in the 3rd World, even incarcerated among mature criminals.

A fortuitous event in our second graph shows that the upper end of the definition practically decreases in linear fashion, albeit, it must be confessed, the y-axis is not according to scale.

The choice of the legal definition gives us something akin to the idea of “teenager”.  This is a term which is practically self-defining, as it only requires an age with a number ending in “teen”. The upper limit, nineteen, is missing from our graph, as it was not directly derived from a dictionary page which we visited.

In terms of a Venn diagram, some teenagers are adolescents, and some adolescents are adults (if the physiological definition fits), but the reverse does not hold.

This causes us to reflect on the biggest difficulty with dictionaries.  Like reporters, their authors do not give their sources.  Unlike lawyers, they do not give a defense for the case they make.  Users are left to do all the thinking.  Translators might use footnotes, but what can an interpreter do?  In another culture, perhaps it would be possible to get to the basic idea by asking if a person is old enough to drink, to drive, to vote, or to marry.  This, however, can be a potential minefield, when drinking alcohol is absolutely prohibited, when the age of marriage is much below that which we expect, if half the population is prohibited from driving for reasons other than one’s age. It is from the preceding thoughts, and our graphical presentations, that we conclude that “adolescent” and “teenager” are words which have a precise meaning only to those of us sufficiently acquainted with the English language.

In summary, we might define an adolescent, in terms of all the definitions we have seen, as anyone, from 12 years old, in the case of girls, from 13 onwards to 18 or 21, when legal definitions suffice, to 25, when tradition is invoked, and to 30, when the ultra-conservative view is held.  In less words, a person, hypothetically, somewhere from 12 to 30, with preference for the younger half of this age group.

We also see, that in terms of multi-culturalism, no true translations are possible of either the term adolescent, or teenager.  For this reason, and because of the modern double-meaning of the former word, it was well and proper for our Dictionnaire moderne Français – Anglais to translate the noun into English as both adolescent and teenager. [Paris: Larousse, 1960].


A perusal in a Latin – German dictionary gives us the following (translated by the present author): Adolescentia: youthhood, i.e. the age of a person from approximately 13 to 20, and also [of those] 30 and over, as here [in Latin] the [exact] age is as little fixed [festgesetzt] as the word youth [Jugend] is amongst the Germans. [Taken from Immanuel Johann Gerhard Scheller, Ausführliches und möglichst vollständiges lateinisch-deutsches Lexicon oder Wörterbuch zum Behufe der Erklärung der Alten und Übung in der lateinischen Sprache: In fünf Bänden. A – C: Leipzig: Caspar Fritsch, 1804]

Copyright, 2016, Paul Karl Moeller.  1st version – June 17, 2016

2nd version – Revised, augmented, and corrected, – June 20, 2016

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: