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 binders and charts, rolling out a long genealogy that outlined my husband’s mother’s family’s place in the world.
These, of course, would be my relatives through marriage, or in-laws.
But what about the people who married into Amos’ family, or the family my brother married into?
My husband and my sister’s husband, at least, have taken to calling each other outlaws. If in-laws are the folks I married, outlaws are the families my siblings married, and the families my husband’s siblings married.
… I know. It’s a bit much. But then, I was born into a family of seven siblings, each named for family ranging from great-great-great-great grandfather Harvey Nehemiah, to the church organist at the AME church, to my father’s sister’s husband’s stepfather, known as Uncle Pat. Our idea of family may be more flexible than most.
At the same time, as an anthropologist and learner of languages, I like to get specific. And sometimes the words for family in other cultures are way more specific. In Kazakh, for instance, Amina isn’t called a sister. She’s a singli to her older sister, a karindas to her older brother, and an apa to her younger siblings. One girl, but three relationships to her own siblings.
Other times, people use more general words than we do. In Kazakh, you don’t have a niece. Instead, you have a zhien: a nephew or a niece, or both.
And finally, some other cultures name concepts or relationships we don’t choose to highlight.
What would my dad call my husband’s dad? Well, 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.
This seems to be more common in societies where the parents are active in forming connections and making matches through their relationships with each other. It could also involve the need to keep connections across wide geographies, or work together nearby.
I should also note that naming your relationship suggests there are obligations, privileges, or expectations you may have of them, or they of you. This plays into it even when we have ‘fictive kin,’ people we name as family who aren’t related to us.
A blood brother is a bit different than a business partner.
A sugar daddy isn’t just a significant other.
So I was curious what family words might be lacking in English. Below are a few questions you might be asking, with answers to throw into your conversation this Thanksgiving:
Isn’t there a simpler way to talk about my nieces and nephews in English?
Yes. You have niblings, a word created by Samuel Martin in 1951 to refer to both nieces and nephews.
It can be cute to talk about tiny children as sweet enough to nibble; if that gets awkward, there’s also the casual sibkids for your siblings’ kids.
What do I call the cousins of my parents?
A family researcher would call them first cousins once removed, but you probably won’t be mentioning that at the family barbecue.
Others call them cousin-uncles and cousin-aunts. It doesn’t quite work for me, because I call people cousins who are my age, and aunts who are a generation or two older.
There’s also the quirky Welsh uncle and Welsh aunt, making you their Welsh nephew or niece.
Your cousins’ children would then be your Welsh nephews and nieces… Welsh niblings? I’ll stop now. Just call them your nephews.
Is there a joint word for aunts and uncles?
In the same vein as sibling and nibbling, I’ve heard pibling (parent’s sibling), but this is terrible, a conflation of piddle, piddling, and Pabst beer.
In most languages, actually, people divide out aunts and uncles far more than we do. Even in our own 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.
We eventually just adopted the French aunt (tante) and uncle (oncle) instead.
I’ve seen people try to combine the old English into Ommer as a general name for an aunt or uncle. It could work, but I’d like something better.
What do I call the grandparents / grandkids?
But if you don’t want to distinguish between them, there’s always Grandy.
And if you want a cute nickname for the grandkids, there’s 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 pressing linguistic problems, but it’s fun.
What can I call my kid’s spouse’s folks (to their face)?
In English, your parents have to talk of their daughter-in-law’s parents, or something like that. But in Kazakh, my dad can talk with Amos’ dad directly as his Kuda.
In Spanish, my mother can call her kids’ spouses’ parents her consuegros.
And in Yiddish, she can Facebook message her Machatunim to kvetch about why none of the grandkids ever call their Bubbe (grandmother) anymore. Whichever you choose, this seems useful in today’s networked world.
What if I want a non-gendered but cozy name for a parent?
Uhh, I don’t know. To get the kids to stop calling Mommy-mommy-mommy for a late-night snack, maybe have them call you Daddy in the hopes that it becomes automatic. 😉
But if you have a same-gender spouse or just want to avoid gender roles in what you do for your loved little ones, well… there aren’t many cozy words that don’t connote gender. I’ve heard Madi, Maddy, and Moppa. Zazi echoes the pronoun ze, but calls up images of jazzercise and bedazzled jeans. And Momo just reminds me of dumplings.
I’m somewhat intrigued by Renny, short for parent. It’s bland, but could probably take on whatever color you added to it. I suspect this is very much up for each parent’s preference.
Finally, what do I do with all my cousins?
Depends on which ones! You might have cousin-brothers who grew up together but aren’t birth brothers.
Or kissing cousins, confusingly defined as either someone close for a friendly kiss OR biologically distant enough to kiss and marry. Be clear on which one you’re looking for.
The somewhat-rare double cousins share all four grandparents, as when my grandpa Stan’s mother’s sister married his father’s brother. His cousin Betty then shares all aunts, uncles, and grandparents with him. There’s no incest here, just matching marriages with kids who see their cousins at both Christmases and Easters.
And finally, there are second cousins, or your parent’s cousin’s kids. This involves a bit of counting, and not everyone needs it, as “second cousins are essentially strangers, unless you live on a small island in Maine.”
But there are other names for the children of your parents’ cousins.
I’m charmed by the Finnish pikkuserkku, except I’m pretty sure I’d end up just calling them my Pikachu cousins.
Instead, I’ll stay in touch with my sysslings. In Sweden, at least, it’s cousins and barnbarns all the way down:
- 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)