Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Infantilize


The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is infantilize. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

To infantilize someone is to treat them as though they are an infant—in other words, to treat them as helpless, immature, or as one who lacks adult agency.

// Infantilizing children by shielding them from taking risks can have detrimental effects on their growth and well-being.


“Countering negative stereotypes, in oneself and others, is a complex process. Replacing negative beliefs with positive ones may help … but the nature of these beliefs matters. Seemingly positive stereotypes that infantilize the elderly (such as the ‘sweet old lady’ stereotype) can still have negative effects.” — Juliana Breines, Psychology Today, 20 Sep. 2021

Did You Know?

Infantilize is just a baby, linguistically speaking. It wasn’t until several decades into the 20th century that social scientists started using the term to discuss the ways in which treating humans as helpless can prolong or encourage their dependency on others. The adjective infantile, which gave birth to infantilize, is far more mature: it dates to the 17th century. (Infant dates to the 14th century and comes ultimately from a Latin word meaning “incapable of speech; young.”) Infantile sometimes literally means “relating to infants”—that is, to children in the first year of life—but it is also applied more broadly. If you chide someone for their infantile behavior, for example, you rebuke the person for acting immaturely or childishly; to chide someone for infantilizing behavior, on the other hand, is to rebuke them for acting as if others are not as mature or independent as they are.

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