Archaic and unusual names for relatives
We all know that there are quite a few different ways to say ‘father’ in English, from dad and daddy to father, pater, and the old man. Taking a look into the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals some unusual or archaic variants – and the same is true for almost any relative you can think of. We’ve already looked at the curious language used to describe twins (or twindles, if you will); now let’s turn our attention to the whole extended family.
Once you’re tired of Dad, Pa, and other common names for your male parent, why not try out bap? This is a borrowing from Hindi, and is used in South Asian and Caribbean English, chiefly in Trinidad and Guyana. The equivalent for your mother is mai; while both mai and bap can be used respectfully to any older person, they can be combined in the Indian English mai bap, a form of address to a person considered to command the same respect as a parent.
In cultural anthropological use, a person’s biological father is known as their genitor, from the root of gignere, ‘to beget’; the female equivalent is genetrix. This is opposed to pater, used in this context to mean a man who assumes legal and social responsibility for a child who is not necessarily his biological offspring. Both genitor and pater have a longer history as simple synonyms for ‘father’ without these connotations, as has genetrix (and genitrice and genitress) for ‘mother’.
More informally, pot and pan is British and Australian slang for a father – or a husband. It is rhyming slang for old man, which can similarly be used of both male relatives.
Wicked stepmothers and good stepmothers
Cinderella may not have liked hers, but did you know that a stepmother could once be known as a noverk in a rare and long obsolete Scottish term, borrowing from the Latin noverca? The adjective novercal (now rare) means ‘of, relating to, or characteristic of a stepmother’, and was frequently used in extended use to describe somebody – much like the Evil Stepmothers of fairy tales – as cruel, malicious, or hostile.
Contrarily, in Scottish English, a stepmother can also be termed a good-mother, which can also denote a mother-in-law. Indeed, good has often been added to familial words to suggest a relative at one remove – good-father is a father-in-law or a stepfather, good-brother is a brother-in-law, good-sister is a sister-in-law, good-son is a son-in-law, and good-daughter in a daughter-in-law.
Let’s start with a couple of useful words to describe half-siblings: siblings are uterine if they are children of the same mother, and consanguinean if they are children of the same father. Uterine also means ‘relating to the uterus’, so you can see how the term came about; on the other, consanguinean is from ‘con’ (with, with the same) and ‘sanguis’ (blood). Other names for a half-brother include brother consanguinean (shared father) and womb brother (shared mother); a brother who shares both your parents can be termed a brother-german or germaine brother –and similar equivalents exist for sister. This comes from Latin germanus ‘having the same father and mother’ and has nothing to do with the country of a similar name.
In Scottish and northern English regional usage , you can have billy (brother) and tittie (sister). Brotherkin is a term for a small brother (in various senses of the word), but there does not appear to be a corresponding sisterkin. Turning to rhyming slang, brothers seem to have been more immune than sisters; there is no entry in Oxford Dictionaries or the OED for rhyming slang for brother, but skin and blister is there for sister in both.
Turning again to cultural anthropology, a levir is a brother-in-law, and also applies to one acting as such under the custom of the levirate. This is the custom of the ancient Hebrews and some other peoples by which a man may be obliged to marry his brother’s widow.
Step back a couple of generations, and there are some unusual names you can try out on your unsuspecting grandfather. Belsire (now obsolete) is found as far back as Langland’s Piers Plowman, and the prefix bel- is found in various other terms for a grandfather or grandmother: belfader, belmoder, and beldame. The first element of this comes from French bel ‘fair, fine’, it is not clear why it was used to form kinship terms in English; it is not used in French in this way. However, there is analogy with the English words with good– discussed above, and especially with goodsire (grandfather) – which also has the Scottish variant gutcher.
Aiel (a term for a grandfather or a forefather, now historical and rare) is borrowed from the French aiel, which appears to go back to a diminutive of avius or (originally) avus grandfather, although the loss of the ‘v’ has yet to be explained fully (it has been suggested that it reflects a child’s pronunciation, but there are also occasional parallels in other words). Aiel survives only in the legal term writ of aiel, meaning ‘an action by a party based on the seisin [possession of land] of a grandfather for the recovery of land of which that party has been dispossessed’. Aiel could also be extended to further generations: a besaiel was a great-grandfather, while a tresaiel was a great-great-grandfather.
Don’t take it amiss if your aiel calls you a petty-son or petty-daughter; yes, they’re using obsolete English, but it was not a criticism. Rather than using petty with its current most common definition, ‘trivial’, this was simply used to modify terms of kinship, denoting two generations of descent.
While we’re talking about grandchildren terminology that could be misinterpreted, in Scottish and Irish English oy is still in use to mean a grandchild (and should not be confused with the less polite exclamation oi!). It can also mean a nephew or niece, so the chances of identifying the right person at an extended family gathering are a little complicated.
If you’re in New Zealand, you might hear your grandparent call their mokopuna: it’s a borrowing from Maori, and can also be used of a great-niece or great-nephew. It was largely restricted to Maori contexts until the 1980s, but has since been borrowed more broadly into New Zealand English. Crossing back to the northern hemisphere, pronepot and pronephew once meant great-grandson in Scottish English, although both terms are now obsolete. If the latter seems confusing, it’s worth knowing that nephew could once mean a grandson; this sense survived into the 20th century in regional use.
Nephews and nieces
Sister son means what it suggest – the son of one’s sister – but things aren’t always so clear. If you thought nephew for ‘grandson’ added complications, then you should know that niece could once mean ‘nephew’, while nephew could once mean ‘niece’.
Other terms for ‘nephew’ share nephew’s etymological root in Latin (nepōt-, nepōs): nepote, nepos, and neve – all of which have also meant ‘grandson’ at some stage; similarly neptis led to both the current English niece and the obsolete variant nift, which could also occasionally mean a granddaughter or a grand-niece. The Latin roots were used to mean any variety of descendant, which might help explain why the application of the words has been somewhat fluid.
Uncles and aunts
Eme and mome were once options for ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, though they are now obsolete. One term relating to uncles has survived into modern English with an altered definition. You may be familiar with the adjective avuncular, which is now used to mean ‘kind and friendly towards a younger or less experienced person’. Did you know, though, that its earlier sense was ‘of, belonging to, or resembling an uncle’? The Latin avunculus denotes one’s mother’s brother, being a diminutive of avus, grandfather; the same root ultimately gives the modern day uncle.
Along the way, an uncle became a nuncle and an aunt became a naunt through a process called metanalysis (which you can read more about in our blog post). If nuncle and naunt sound like unpleasant modern coinages, they actually date to Middle English and, later, even Shakespeare saw fit to include ‘Giue me an egge Nuncle’ in King Lear. Nunky and nunks followed a few centuries later, in colloquial British English.
And just to finish things off, there is a set of obsolete or rare terms created by adding Welsh to a relative to create a compound noun. Suddenly you have a way of referring to the male first cousin of your parent (Welsh uncle), the female first cousin of your parent (Welsh aunt), the son of your cousin (Welsh nephew), and the daughter of your cousin (Welsh niece). If you or your family happen to live in Wales, of course, this might only add more problems than it solves.