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Family Members


By Christine Lovatt

What do you call your mother’s aunt’s grandson’s only second cousin? Some languages might even have a word for such a relationship, although in this case the answer is - yourself.

There are languages far more specific than English when it comes to narrowing down exact family relationships.

Many cultures specify whether a relative is on the father’s side or the mother’s. Age is also treated with respect.

The Chinese language has different names for every aunt or uncle as well as for an uncle’s wife or the eldest aunt in the family. For instance, your mother’s brother is called jiu-jiu, but to denote the order, you add prefixes, so, da jiu-jiu is the oldest brother, er jiu-jiu is the second brother and xiao jiu-jiu or san jiu-jiu is the youngest brother.  Your father’s older brother is bo-bo or bo-fu and his younger brother is shu-shu.

In Latin, patruus is your father’s brother and your mother’s brother is avunculus, which is where our word uncle comes from, and also the word avuncular meaning ‘friendly like an uncle’. (Aunt comes from amita, Latin for father’s sister).

In Swedish, your father’s brother is farbror and your mother’s brother is morbror.

In Hindi,  jethani means the wife of an older brother and devrani is the wife of the younger brother.

In the American Indian Cree language, there are separate words for older brother and younger brother.

Korean has emo for maternal aunts and gomo for paternal aunts.

It’s the same in Bengali – there are four different words for aunt, depending on whether it is father’s sister, mother’s sister, mother’s brother’s wife or father’s brother’s wife. Phew!

English must seem very unspecific to speakers of other languages – we’re all lumped together under one title. However, in French, mother-in-law and stepmother are called by the same rather charming name belle mere, which translates as ‘beautiful mother’. How much nicer than stepmother with connotations of ‘the wicked stepmother’ of fairy stories.

I recently read of a move to call nieces and nephews by the collective term ‘niblings’ (as in siblings) – so much easier to say ‘I’m taking my niblings out’ than ‘my nieces and nephews’. You don’t have to write to lexicographers, begging them to include it in dictionaries – just use the word regularly, preferably in crowds – and maybe it will catch on!


Happy puzzling!


4 Responses to

Family Members

kamra said:
January 31, 2008 at 9:48 AM


I would love to know how to introduce my daughter-in-laws Mum. There isn't a word for the in-law connection. I always seem to say my sons Mum-in-law, or my opposite counterpart. Any hints?


kamra said:
January 31, 2008 at 1:38 PM


Blood relatives seem to be covered but what about in-laws. There doesn't seem to be an easy way to introduce your opposite counterparts when your child marries.




February 08, 2008 at 12:05 PM


I quite agree, Kamra. Perhaps we could make up a term and start using it. If it fills a gap it may catch on eventually. "In-laws" is a fairly unfriendly-sounding word anyway. Do other readers have any good ideas?


Shaznic said:
February 15, 2008 at 8:25 AM


How about "out-laws". Not me personally, but some people have a less than happy relationship with their spouses family.