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The term expecting is often used as if it means "pregnant", as shown by Merriam-Webster (for the verb expect)

3 : to be pregnant : await the birth of one's child —used in progressive tenses she's expecting next month

and Oxford Dictionaries says

informal Be pregnant.
‘his wife was expecting again’

but logically you can only be expecting if you are knowingly pregnant and anticipating a successful conclusion.

There seem to be two issues here. One is how we should use terms that are metaphorical in origins in particular contexts where the original meaning seems to be the opposite of the derived meaning.

The other is whether we should go by the dictionary when we suspect the dictionary writers were not specific enough in their definition.

Note that this question was motivated by a news report that said that surgeons "discovered that [Ebony, who did not previously know she was pregnant] was expecting a baby [while she was in a coma], and I thought, "How could she be expecting a baby or anything else whilst in a coma?"

  • I agree. “expecting” is a subset of “pregnant”. – Jim Feb 19 at 5:08
  • I don't understand the distinction. You wouldn't use pregnant either unless the condition were known. I don't see anything about expecting that's the opposite of pregnant. Your news report example is somewhat misleading. She was still expecting—even though she didn't know it. The sense of the word is not the same as anticipating. (Or, if you want to say it is, then the hospital staff and her family were the ones doing the anticipating—in the same sense that couples can say we are pregnant.) – Jason Bassford Feb 19 at 8:04
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    The reporter has simply used a common synonym for 'pregnant' without thinking. – Kate Bunting Feb 19 at 9:11
  • That's right, @JasonBassford, she didn't use the term. Other people used the term referring to when she was in a coma. It often happens that the mother is not the first person to notice she is pregnant. If I think someone else is pregnant and she has not noticed anything, then, logically, I am expecting that she will have a baby, but she isn't. I think its meaning is similar to anticipate. MW gives this amongst a number of definitions other than the pregnant one and they almost all involve perception, such as look forward, suppose, think, consider. – David Robinson Feb 19 at 13:14
  • That is the question, @KateBunting. Is it a mistake, or is it a valid use of the term? The reporter may have thought and decided it was OK, or they might not have thought - in which case we do not know if they would have changed it if they had thought. – David Robinson Feb 19 at 13:17
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It’s a euphemism. From the etymonline entry for "pregnant":

The word tended to be avoided in polite conversation until c. 1950; modern euphemisms include anticipating, enceinte, expecting, in a family way, in a delicate (or interesting) condition. Old English terms included mid-bearne, literally "with child;" bearn-eaca, literally "child-adding" or "child-increasing;" and geacnod "increased." Among c. 1800 slang terms for "pregnant" was poisoned (in reference to the swelling).

The use of it always reminds me of a Lady Whiteadder (Blackadder's aunt) quote source

Aunt: [stands up] Don’t call me 'Aunty'!!! [slaps him twice] `Aunt’ is a relative, and relatives are evidence of sex, and sex is hardly a fitting subject for the dinner table. [sits]

It is a means of saying a baby is present but concealing the act of conception (because sex is "hardly a fitting subject" in polite company). Personally, I know where babies come from, so I’d take no issue with just saying "pregnant", but the contents of the news story you reference is already quite scandalous, so maybe the writer is simply attempting to tone it down for the more conservative amongst us.

  • Thank you, Pam. I realize it is a euphemism and I understand where the euphemism comes from and why we use one in this context. It refers to all that is associated with looking forward to the 'happy event', which may involve celebration, thinking what you will call it, organizing maternity leave and many other things. My question is whether you can use it in a particular circumstance when the metaphor is clearly invalid - where Ebony had no expectation of anything and no opportunity to do any of the things associated with expecting a baby. – David Robinson Feb 19 at 12:53
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I think "expecting" would fall under the category of being a polysemic word, which is a topic that has been discussed on StackExchange before:

A word with a wide range of meanings

that doesn't address the logical aspects of the various meanings, but contronyms exist so it is perhaps not so far-fetched that a word like 'expecting' exists as it does in the English language.

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