When one has lost both parents due to death the word orphan is used. This word is generally but not always used for children. It can in spoken English also be used for adults.

My question is what about the loss of one parent? Is there a word for this?

  • It depends completely on the region and dialect. Some places I have lived , "orphaned" could also be a motherless child with an often-absent father. or other far-worse stuff. May 18, 2023 at 20:45
  • Are you asking about (1) those who who have lost one parent and are raised by the other one alone, or (2) those who have lost one parent, leaving open the possibility that the other parent has remarried and that the stepparent plays a role in the child's upbringing? As it turns out, that is relevant to judging the adequacy of the answers posted.
    – jsw29
    May 18, 2023 at 20:54
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    Slang? bereaved. If a child is in bereavement and isn't an orphan... well, it ain't for the family dog. Could be for a brother or sister, but that's not going to be my assumption.
    – Mazura
    May 19, 2023 at 20:39
  • @Mazura Bereaved can mean the loss of a dog or pet and even a partner or another loved one besides parent. It does not have to be a parent.
    – Pryftan
    May 20, 2023 at 13:27

4 Answers 4


Motherless or fatherless are terms used to refer to a child whose mother or father has died (or does not live with them).

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    – NVZ
    May 22, 2023 at 15:37

Merriam-Webster has an entry for half-orphan, meaning someone with only one living parent.

They say specifically a child, which would match the usual usage of "orphan" (as mentioned in the question), but it might be used of an adult sometimes, either jocularly or by extension.

This doesn't distinguish which parent is dead, but could be combined with a further explanation if it matters.

  • 4
    +1 You could add that "semi-orphan" is also attested.
    – MetaEd
    May 18, 2023 at 15:56

For completeness, it's worth mentioning that orphan itself is sometimes used in this way. This is indicated in its Merriam-Webster definition:

a child deprived by death of one or usually both parents

[link; emphasis mine]

In my experience, this usage is usually found only when translating a foreign-language word that means "a child who's lost one or both parents", or at least, in contexts where there's a salient foreign language with such a word; for example, Jewish religious discussions use orphan in this way [example] because of Hebrew yatom, and descriptions of French law use orphan in this way [example] because of French orphelin.

I would not expect a typical English-speaker to be familiar with this usage, so I'd recommend it only in situations where the context makes it clear, or where it doesn't matter if some readers misunderstand it.

  • 2
    Yup...that is the answer I was waiting for...the definition has changed over the years. May 19, 2023 at 18:36
  • 1
    @Cascabel_StandWithUkraine_ FWIW though it's not in OED; that only says both. This is one example of many, many differences between American English and English proper.
    – Pryftan
    May 20, 2023 at 13:20
  • 1
    @Pryftan: I don't think the OED is the arbiter of "English proper". (And note that it theoretically covers all forms of English, so if it's missing a sense that's known to occur in AmE then that's a gap in the OED rather than an implicit claim by the OED that it doesn't occur in BrE.) Do you have any evidence that this use doesn't occur in BrE?
    – ruakh
    May 20, 2023 at 17:20
  • Especially if the parent is the father; in traditional gender roles, the man provides financially for his family, so someone who loses their father has lost their financial support. May 20, 2023 at 23:19
  • @ruakh It's not the only BrE dictionary? Anyway that's hardly relevant. It's not like AmE is a good example of English proper. Noah Webster and others mutilated English though some things do make more sense. Did you know Webster wanted to change tongue to tung? Women to wimmen? He learnt 28 languages and felt English was too complicated so he complicated it more! Don't get me started on turtleneck, jumper or other words or other opposite meanings that only make it more complicated. Even if other BrE dictionaries have it AmE is not a good baseline .. at least not in other countries.
    – Pryftan
    May 21, 2023 at 10:40

It requires a bit of rewording the sentence, but the term single-parent household is commonly used to refer to growing up in such a scenario, though this doesn't just refer to a parent who died but also parents who divorced or were never married to begin with. ("Orphan" doesn't necessarily require the death of both or either of the parents either, just that the child be somehow separated from them, which can happen in other ways as well.)

  • 6
    No, orphan is specifically for dead parents. It may be applied euphemistically for kids who were willfully abandoned by their parents as an infant, but that is considered a white lie for the sake of the kid's feelings. No more, no less
    – No Name
    May 18, 2023 at 22:59
  • 2
    @NoName There are definitely some dictionaries that include loss of parents without requiring them to be dead, 1 2 3 May 19, 2023 at 13:15
  • Again, euphemism for the sake of the kid
    – No Name
    May 19, 2023 at 22:37
  • @DarrelHoffman I think loss of parent is usually by death, missing or absent parent would be the other as loss implies gone forever/permanently and absent may return to visit or stay.
    – KalleMP
    May 20, 2023 at 10:16
  • @DarrelHoffman but as expected these are American English dictionaries. I mean maybe the OP is okay with that but ... still. Okay Collins dictionary isn't but that's less common in the definition. So I would argue that No Name is correct. American English dictionaries also have 'nite' for 'night' and don't even mark it as non-standard so it's not like they can be relied on (that much?). Still OED does have that spelling anyway which kind of surprises me. Well that's language for you. If enough people use a word for a meaning it changes, like it or not.
    – Pryftan
    May 20, 2023 at 13:26

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