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Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (2003), gives meaning 3 of deliver as follows:

3 a (1) : to assist in giving birth (2) : to aid in the birth of b : to give birth to c : to cause (oneself) to produce as if by giving birth

Definition 3b appears to be by far the most common birth-related meaning today, to judge from a Google Books search of publications from the year 2000 using the phrase "delivered a healthy." In 28 of the first 30 matches involving babies, the mother is named as the deliverer. (In the other two, credit goes, respectively, to "Jim and Bob" and to "the Lord"; in two additional instances, a company delivered "a healthy profit" or "a healthy 6.8% return.")

But in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1756), the only birth-related definition of deliver is this one:

6 To disburden a woman of a child.

And a book by Jacques Guillemeau, translated in 1635 bears the evocative title Child-birth, or, The Happy Delivery of Women. The implication here seems to be that the delivery is of women from the burden and suffering of childbirth.

My question is: When did the notion that a mother delivers her child, as opposed to being delivered of her child, arise?

I had expected the Oxford English Dictionary to provide a fairly precise answer. But its handling of the relevant definition of deliver is surprisingly limited:

3 To disburden (a woman) of the fœtus, to bring to childbirth ; in passive, to give birth to a child or offspring. Rarely said of beasts. (The active is late and and chiefly in obstetrical use.)

c 1325 Metr. Hom. 63 For than com tim Mari mild Suld be deliuerd of hir child. ... 1480 CAXTON Chron Eng. lxxi. 53 Tyme come that she should be delyuered and bere a child. 1484Fables of Æsop 1. ix, *A bytche which wolde lyttre and be delyured of her lytyl dogges. 1568 TILNEY Disc. Mariage C viii, To have thy wyfe with childe safely delyvered. 1611 SHAKS. Wint. T. II. ii. 25 She is, something before her time, deliuer'd. 1685 COOKE Marrow of Chirurg. III. I. i. (ed. 4) 168 The third time they sent and begged I would deliver her. 1754–64 SMELLIE Midwif. I. Introd. 70 A better method of delivering in laborious and preternatural cases. 1805 Med. Jrnl. XIV. 521 By making an incision in the urethra..the patient might be delivered. c 1850 Arab. Nts. (Rtldg.) 448 The queen..was in due time safely delivered of a prince.

From the OED's treatment of deliver definition 3, it appears that the notion of the mother as deliverer came surprisingly late in history. Does anyone know how late?

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    This is only a guess, but I wonder if mother-as-deliverer arose due to drift in the meaning of "deliver". I don't think any modern speaker would use "deliver" to mean "disburden" or "liberate" these days, as the "carry" and "hand over" usages have taken over. If "deliver a baby" was already a phrase in the collective vocabulary, it might make sense for the exact sense of who is doing the delivering to change along with the meaning of the word "deliver".
    – Blckknght
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 4:13
  • Mother has always delivered her baby, at least until people started helping her and claimed credit for themselves. No one "delivers" from another's womb but only assists in the process. (Julius, you did everything different, of course.)
    – Kris
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 5:03
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    related Why use "of" in the phrase: "Delivered of a baby"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 9:48
  • Ngrams seems to say that the transition happened in the first half of the 20th century, when "delivered a child" starts overtaking "delivered of a child". There are uses of "delivered a child" before that, but they're nearly all written by doctors or midwives. Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 12:55
  • @Blckknght Have you considered posting this as an answer? I think you may well be one to something here.
    – WS2
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 20:38

3 Answers 3

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The OED recognises both uses of the verb 'deliver', under their meaning 3.

In both cases, and fundamental to the meaning of 'deliver', is the idea of freeing and releasing. Note that they refer to the second (or b) as the passive.

a. To disburden (a woman) of the fœtus, to bring to childbirth; in pass., to give birth to a child or offspring. Rarely said of beasts. (The active is late and chiefly in obstetrical use.) †b.pass. Of the offspring: To be brought forth (lit. and fig.). Obs.

This has been an excellent question.

It is certainly still current usage, in my experience in Britain, and at least in print, to speak of the mother as the one who has been 'delivered'. ('She was delivered of a nine-pound baby son'.) But you also see 'the mid-wife assisted in the delivery of a baby girl'. Indeed it not uncommon I believe to speak of the doctor or mid-wife as the one who delivers. It now seems clear that the doctor can both deliver a mother (from the rigours of childbirth), and a child (into the world)

In answer to the question as to when the mother is first spoken of as the 'deliverer' as opposed to the 'delivered', the first OED reference is from 1581.

1581 G. Pettie tr. S. Guazzo Ciuile Conuersat. (1586) i. 12 All beastes so soone as they are delivered from their dam get upon their feete.

There are also a couple of references from Shakespeare circa 1609.

Edit 4/July/2020 Reviewing this matter again after six years I believe @Peter Shor summarises the position succinctly in his comment thus:

If you search Google books for "delivered a child", in the 19th century, it's always a doctor or a midwife delivering the child. In the early 20th century, you see that some mothers have started delivering their own children. But in the 19th century, it's doctors either delivering a child of a woman, or delivering a woman of a child.

I now believe that @Blckknght made a pertinent contribution when he said:

This is only a guess, but I wonder if mother-as-deliverer arose due to drift in the meaning of "deliver". I don't think any modern speaker would use "deliver" to mean "disburden" or "liberate" these days, as the "carry" and "hand over" usages have taken over. If "deliver a baby" was already a phrase in the collective vocabulary, it might make sense for the exact sense of who is doing the delivering to change along with the meaning of the word "deliver".

There has clearly, across the centuries been a drift in the meaning of "deliver". Though to me it seems that the two meanings of deliver - a) to liberate someone of something and b) to hand over something to someone, have co-existed across time. There is an OED example of b as early as the thirteenth century.

Thanks to Peter's succinct summary therefore:

a)In the 19th century, it's always a doctor or a midwife delivering the child. b)In the early 20th century, you see that some mothers have started delivering their own children. c) But in the 19th century, it's doctors either delivering a child of a woman, or delivering a woman of a child.

Added to this is the additional curiosity that so far as the animal kingdom is concerned, mothers were apparently delivering offspring as long ago as 1581.

1581 G. Pettie tr. S. Guazzo Ciuile Conuersat. (1586) i. 12 All beastes so soone as they are delivered from their dam get upon their feete.

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    I'm not convinced by your citation. If a baby animal "was delivered", it doesn't mean that the mother delivered it. In this case, it would be "by their dam" and not "from their dam" if the mother was the agent. Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 12:56
  • @PeterShor Not having been around in 1581, I wouldn't know whether in those days people would have said by their dam or from their dam, and what the significance of each preposition was. What does seem clear is that the thing spoken of as being delivered was the offspring.
    – WS2
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 18:57
  • I thought the OP's question was: when did mothers start delivering babies as opposed to doctors or midwives delivering babies. But rereading, I think I may have misunderstood the question; I can't tell exactly what the OP is asking, and you are certainly answering one of the possible questions. Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 20:22
  • @PeterShor The title to the question asks when the mother first becomes the deliverer, as opposed to (the one that is delivered). My answer is 'from about 1581'. And in modern parlance a mother is both 'the deliverer' and 'the delivered'. This thread has clarified a vague confusion I had always had as to why we sometimes say 'Nancy was delivered of a baby girl', and other times 'Nancy delivered a baby girl'. Both are apparently correct (according to the OED).
    – WS2
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 20:37
  • 1
    If you search Google books for "delivered a child", in the 19th century, it's always a doctor or a midwife delivering the child. In the early 20th century, you see that some mothers have started delivering their own children. But in the 19th century, it's doctors either delivering a child of a woman, or delivering a woman of a child. Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 0:48
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According to Etynomline, deliver with the meaning you are referring to was first attested around 1300.: ( actually confirming OED reference).

  • Childbirth sense in English, "to bring (a woman) to childbirth," is from c.1300. Sense of "hand over, give, give up, yield" is c.1300. in English, which brings it in opposition to its root.

while delivery(n.) :

  • early 15c., "action of handing over to another," from Anglo-French delivrée, noun use of fem. past participle of Old French délivrer (see deliver). Childbirth sense is attested from 1570s. Of speech, from 1580s. Of a blow, throw of a ball, etc., from 1702.
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The mother is the "deliverer." The baby is the "delieveree."

Because the mother "delivers" the baby when giving birth.

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    Before the 20th century, the doctor or midwife delivered the baby. The mother gave birth to the baby. And the baby was delivered or was born, depending on your point of view. Some time in the late 19th or early 20th century, people started misusing the word "deliver" for "gave birth to", and that is how it came to have its current meaning. Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 0:06
  • @PeterShor But in the 1581 example, the beastes delivered from their dam, were not usually cared for by doctors or midwives, I trust. So, who, in a state of nature (which Hobbes depicted as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, did the author have in mind as doing the delivering? I am intrigued to know how you know that the notion of mothers "delivering" entered the language by way of a mistake in the late 19th century.
    – WS2
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 12:39

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