I’ll be back to Maine next week for Thanksgiving with my husband’s folks.
It should be fun. The day after Amos and I got married, I met my new Aunt Beth. She brought out a long genealogy that outlined my husband’s mother’s family’s place in the world.
These, of course, are my relatives through marriage, or in-laws.
But what about the people who marry into Amos’ family, or the family my brother married into?
Amos and my sister’s spouse, at least, have taken to calling each other outlaws. If in-laws are the folks I married into, outlaws are the families my sibs married, or the partners of my husband’s brothers and sisters.
I know. It’s a bit much. But then I have many siblings, named for family ranging from a Civil War doctor to the local church organist, to my father’s sister’s husband’s stepfather, known as Uncle Pat.
Our idea of family may be more flexible than most.
Specific Words for Family
At the same time, I like learning about languages in which words for family are very… specific. In Kazakh, people wouldn’t call Amina a sister. Instead, her older sister calls her singli, her older brother appreciates his karindas, and her younger siblings get annoyed at their bossy apa.
Amina is one girl, but has three relationships to her own siblings, depending on their gender and where they are in the family.
But other times, people use more general words. I don’t have nieces and nephews in Kazakh. Instead, I call both zhien.
Finally, some cultures name concepts or relationships that we don’t really have.
What would my father call my husband’s dad? He could say inlaws, loosely speaking. Or he could talk about the father of my daughter’s husband.
Or, in Kazakh, he could just say ‘my kuda,’ and be called a kuda in return.
Why so many types of family names?
I’m not sure. I imagine this is more common where parents are active in matchmaking, or where you need to keep connections across wide geographies or within a small community.
Naming a relationship can also imply obligations, privileges, or expectations you have for each other. This can happen when we have ‘fictive kin,’ or folks we use family words for but who aren’t actually related to us. That’s true whether it’s your soul sister, your blood brother, or even your sugar mama!
Different ways to name your relationships:
So I was curious what family words might be lacking in English. Below are a few words you might adopt in your conversation this Thanksgiving.
Can’t I say ‘nieces and nephews’ in a simpler way?
Yes. More and more people are talking about their niblings, an English word created by Samuel Martin in 1951 to refer to both nieces and nephews. It can be cute to talk about infants as sweet enough to nibble. But as they get older, there’s also the casual sibkids to talk about your siblings’ kids.
What do I call my parents’ cousins?
A family researcher calls them first cousins once removed, but you won’t use that at the barbecue. Some folks talk loosely of cousin-uncles and cousin-aunts; that’s hard for me to process, because some of my parents’ cousins are my own age.
I rather like the quirky Welsh uncle and Welsh aunt, making you their Welsh nephew or niece. Your own cousins’ children would then be your Welsh nephews… Welsh niblings? I’ll stop now.
Is there a gender-neutral word for aunts and uncles?
Similar to sibling and nibling, I’ve heard pibling (parent’s sibling), but that sounds too much like piddling to me.
It’s curious that we want to hide gender, as many languages actually divide up aunts and uncles more than we do. In Old English, you’d call your father’s brother foedra and his sister fadu; you’d call your mother’s brother eam and her sister modrige. Our French aunt (tante) and uncle (oncle) are already simplifications.
I’ve seen people try to combine eam and modrige into ommer as a word for both aunts and uncles. Unless you’re really dealing with someone who wants to avoid gender in relationships, that feels like trying too hard.
What can I call my grandparents or grandkids?
If you’re looking for a cute name for grandkids, try the Scandinavian barnbarn (child’s child). Your father’s father can be farfar, your mother’s mother can be mormor, and your son’s son can be your sonson. It doesn’t solve any linguistic problems, but it’s fun.
What do I call my kid’s spouse’s parents?
In English, you talk of your daughter-in-law’s parents. But as I mentioned above, in Kazakh, my can talk directly to his kuda, his child’s spouse’s parent. In Spanish, my mother can call her son’s wife’s mother her consuegra.
And in Yiddish, she could Facebook message her machatunim to kvetch about why grandkids never call their grandmas these days. This could be useful in today’s networked world.
What if I want a non-gendered but cozy name for a parent?
I’m not sure. Gender is so basic in names children use for parents around the world.
Same-gender parents or those with dynamic gender roles may want a name that better fits their relationship with their kids. But there aren’t many cozy words that don’t connote gender. Madi, Maddy, and Moppa confuse me. Zazi sounds too much like jazzercise, and Momo reminds me of dumplings.
I am intrigued by Renny, short for parent. It’s bland, but could take on color over time.
Finally, what do I do with all my cousins?
Depends on which ones. You might have cousin-brothers who grew up closely in an extended family. Or kissing cousins, who are confusingly defined as either someone close for a friendly kiss or someone distant enough to kiss and marry.
Double cousins share all four grandparents, usually because two siblings married two siblings. There’s no incest here, just two sets of children who go to the same set of two grandparents’ houses each holiday.
Finally, the children of your parents’ cousins are your second cousins. Some folks think this isn’t necessary, as “second cousins are essentially strangers, unless you live on a small island in Maine.”
But others have charming names, such as the Finnish pikkuserkku (Pikachu cousins?) or the Swedish sysslings. In Sweden, at least, it’s cousins and barnbarns all the way down:
Read here for more:
- English Needs a Word for the Relationship Between Your Parents and Your In-Laws (Slate)
- When Incest is Best: Kissing Cousins Have More Kin (Scientific American)
- 11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members (Mental Floss)
- Introducing Nibling and Nephling (Hot Pepper Comm.)
- Archaic and Unusual Names for Relatives (Oxford Dictionaries)
- Gender-neutral pronouns: When ‘they’ doesn’t identify as either male or female (WaPo)