the colonial origin of the word ‘kidnap’


kidnap - Pennsylvania Packet - 10 Feb. 1772

                                                                                                                  GLOUCESTER COUNTY Jan. 20th, 1772.
                                                                    SIXTEEN DOLLARS REWARD.
RUN AWAY from the Subscriber, on the 16th of this instant, an indented servant man, named PETER WOODFORD, about five feet seven or eight inches high, appears to be about 21 or 22 years of age, of a darkish complexion, strait hair and thin visage : He is very much addicted to liquor, a great boaster, very quarrelsome, and chews tobacco to a great excess. Had on when he went away, an old felt hat, black silk neckcloth, a brown waistcoat, almost new, old blue woollen trowsers, an old oznabrig shirt, old stockings, with half boots. It is very likely he may change his dress and name, and call himself Benjamin Davis ; also he may probably produce a pass. Whoever takes up said servant, and brings him home, or secures him in any of his Majesty’s goals, so that his master may have him again, shall receive the above reward paid by
                                                                                                                                   URIAH PAUL.

from The Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) – 10th February 1772




The verb kidnap originally meant to steal or carry off children or others in order to provide servants or labourers for the American plantations.

This verb is composed of nap (of which nab is a variant), meaning to seizeto snatch, and the noun kid, used in a specific sense first explained by the Anglican minister Reverend Hugh Jones (1691-1760), who returned to England after spending several years in Virginia; observing “that few People in England (even many concerned in publick Affairs of this kind) have correct Notions of the true State of the Plantations”, he published a detailed overview of the colony, entitled The Present State of Virginia (London, 1724):

The Ships that transport these Things [= the commodities listed earlier] often call at Ireland to victual [= get provisions], and bring over frequently white Servants, which are of three Kinds, 1. Such as come upon certain Wages by Agreement for a certain Time. 2. Such as come bound by Indenture*, commonly call’d Kids, who are usually to serve four or five Years; and 3. those Convicts or Felons that are transported, whose Room they had much rather have than their Company; for abundance of them do great Mischiefs, commit Robbery and Murder, and spoil Servants, that were before very good.

* The term indenture was explained by Joseph R. Conlin in The American Past: A Survey of American History (2009); he wrote that in the 17th century the English

used the institution of indentured servitude—bondage to another for a period of years—to provide for orphans. Children whose parents died or abandoned them were farmed out as menial servants (there was no education involved) to families who agreed to bear the expense of raising them. […]
Indentured servitude well suited great planters (and more modestly fixed farmers) who needed laborers in their fields. Their agents in England recruited impoverished adults and adolescents to sign indentures to work in the colonies as servants for an agreed-upon number of years. […]
Not every servant signed indentures voluntarily. English courts sentenced convicts to “transportation” to the colonies; that is, they served their sentences as bound servants. Crimps kidnapped boys off the streets of seaports and men foolish enough to get too drunk too near to the docks when a servant ship only half-filled lay at anchor in the harbor. In 1659, the Venetian ambassador in London saw 1,200 people openly rounded up against their will to be shipped to Barbados.

The earliest known use of the verb kidnap is from A brief historical relation of State affairs from September 1678 to April 1714, by Narcissus Luttrell (1657-1732), annalist and book collector; he wrote that, on 23rd May 1682, there was

a tryall at the kings bench barr upon an indictment against Mr. John Wilmore, for spiriting or kidnapping away a young boy under the age of 13 years, called Richard Siviter, and sending him to Jamaica : the jury was a very good one, returned out of the county of Kent : the witnesses against him were some to prove that there was in generall such a trade as kidnapping or spiriting away children, and that he did beleive [sic] there had been above 500 sent away in two years at Christmas last ; then that Mr. Wilmore had been a practiser of that trade, and particularly had sent away this child to Jamaica by one capt. Jones, master a ship ; that he owned he had sent away the child before the lord mayor, when summoned before him by the parents of the child, and that if they would not be content otherwise, he said they should have their child again, if they would pay him what he had cost him, viz. 5l. his passage thither, 2l. in cloaths, and about 6l. he would cost him home : these things &c. were severally attested against him by the parents of the child, and the waterman that carried him.
October 1682. The trade of kidnapping young children haveing been much used of late, authority has thought fitt, for the putting a stop to so prodigious a villany, to prosecute the offenders for the same ; and accordingly several have been prosecuted : the first was Mr. John Wilmore, who was long since convicted, but never heard off since conviction ; then one Mr. Dessigny was tried for the same crime, and convicted, and fined 500l., and committed till paiement.

The earliest occurrence of kidnapper is from An English Dictionary: Explaining the difficult Terms that are used in Divinity, Husbandry, Physick, Phylosophy, Law, Navigation, Mathematicks, and other Arts and Sciences. Containing Many Thousands of Hard Words (and proper names of Places) more than are in any other English Dictionary or Expositor. Together with the Etymological Derivation of them from their proper Fountains, whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, or any other Language. In a Method more comprehensive, than any that is extant (London: Printed for Samuel Crouch …, 1676), by the English lexicographer Elisha Coles (circa 1640-1680)—c. is the abbreviation of canting:

Kidnapper, c. a stealer or enticer away of Children, &c.

The noun kidnapper then occurs in a broadside ballad composed around 1679, The Poets Dream: or, The Great Out-cry and Lamentable Complaint of the Land against Bayliffs and their Dogs. Wherein is Expressed their Villanous Out-rages to poor Men. With a True Description of their Knavery and their Debauc’h Actions; Prescribed and Presented to the view of all People. To the tune of, Sawny, etc.:

How like Kid-Nappers all the Day,
In every Corner they Survey,
And quaff whole Bowls when they get their Pr[ey]
And that’s the cause that the Land complains.


Of Germanic origin, the noun kid originally denoted the young of a goat. It is first attested in the sense of child in The excellent comedy called, The old law, or, A new way to please you (London, 1656), by Philip Massinger (1583-1640), Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) and William Rowley (circa 1585-circa 1642)—lank suck-eggs means thin (hungry) avaricious people, with reference to weasels, said to suck eggs:

                                                                         Ime old you say
Yes parlous [= perilously] old Kidds and you mark me well,
This Beard cannot get Children, you lank suck eggs,
Unlesse such Weezels come from Court to help us.

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