A Word With a Past: Kidnap

In the mid-seventeenth century, the British colonies in North America and the Caribbean were suffering from a labor shortage.

The colonies had originally attracted Britain’s surplus population: dreamers, fortune-hunters, religious nuts, younger sons, prisoners of war, political failures, vagrants, criminals, the homeless, and the desperate.  Some came with a small financial stake.  Many came as indentured servants.  A few were physically coerced onto ships sailing west.

In 1640s and 1650s, the population base in Britain took a hit. More than eleven per cent of the population died in the English Civil War.  (In World War I, Britain’s second most devastating war, the loss was only three percent.)  With so many young men killed, the birth rate went down.  Consequently, wages went up.  Plenty of people must have asked themselves, “Why leave civilization for the colonies?”

With voluntary immigration down, involuntary immigration became more important.  The inmates of Britain’s prisons were given a chance at a new life–whether they wanted it or not.  Grown men were “Barbadosed”–the seventeenth century equivalent of being shanghaied (another word with a past, now that I think about it).

Worst of all, children were snatched from their parents and sent to the colonies as indentured servants.  As a result, a new word entered English:

Kidnap. .vt. To steal or carry off children or others in order to provide servants or laborers for the American plantations.


  1. Karen S. Elliott on June 10, 2011 at 11:06 am

    I love to learn the origins of words – even though kidnap is a disturbing word, interesting to know how it started!