Is there a word for ‘nieces and nephews’?
Every so often you notice that there just isn’t a word for what you want to say. ‘That’s my sister’s father-in-law’s brother’s wife,’ you whisper to your partner at a wedding, expecting him to decode and remember this piece of information for use over the canapés later. Wouldn’t it be easier if there were already a well-understood term for that relationship? (Or should people just have smaller weddings?)
English is not particularly rich in familial words. This probably says something about the importance (or not) of extended family in our culture. Spanish has a word for your child’s spouse’s parents (they are your consuegros) – a vital piece of wedding vocab. And Hindi speakers have no problem at family gatherings – there’s a word for your elder brother’s wife, your younger brother’s wife, your wife’s sister’s husband, your father’s brother’s daughter, your mother’s sister’s husband, and everybody in between. Just say, ‘My chaachii will try to make you dance at this wedding,’ and your partner instantly knows which aunt to avoid (it’s your father’s younger brother’s wife, FYI).
Some niblings with your siblings?
We do have a few useful family terms in English. We can avoid laboriously saying ‘Mum and Dad’ all the time thanks to the gender-neutral collective term, parents. We also have children and siblings to avoid having to specify our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. And yet, for some reason, we still have to talk about our ‘nephews and nieces’. What is the word for these?
Languages like Spanish and French are fine with using a masculine plural to simply call the whole lot ‘nephews’ (sobrinos and neveux, respectively) – although some people are calling for a rethink of this approach at the moment. At one time, this might have been acceptable in English, too, but try it now and you’re likely to experience a fair amount of outrage from your little niece Trixabelle.
There have been a couple of suggestions to fill this gap, but they haven’t made it into the dictionary yet. ‘Niblings’ appears to be the most popular, like siblings with an ‘n’ for nieces and nephews. Several people claim to have invented this word, but it appears to have been first used by a linguist named Samuel E. Martin in 1951. A few fans use the term – I actually heard somebody mention their niblings last Christmas.
Personally, though, I find it a bit odd. Your nephews and nieces aren’t really comparable to your siblings (even if they look like them). They’re a different generation, for one thing. So ‘niblings’ doesn’t feel like a good fit to me.
Would you rather have sofralia?
Never fear, one man in Michigan has invented an alternative. Rabbi Schneur Stephen Polter’s word, ‘sofralia’, takes so from the Latin word for sister, fra from the Latin word for brother and lia from the end of the Latin word for child. It’s an attempt at a more accurate description of what nieces and nephews are – bravo that man. Unfortunately, Polter doesn’t seem to be having much luck popularising it. “I haven’t gotten much momentum,” he says.
… Or something else?
In German – a language that’s never afraid to create a lengthy noun to describe something accurately – they simply call them what they are: Geschwisterkinder. Literally, ‘sibling-children’. But when you’re back to the same number of syllables as ‘nephews and nieces’, what’s the point?
Everyone seems to love portmanteau words right now (is the person who coined Brexit feeling Bregret about it yet?), so perhaps we should be thinking about ‘nieceyous’ or ‘nephses’?
And let’s not forget that whatever we decide to call them, your nephews and nieces still don’t have anything to call you. They’re stuck telling everybody about their aunts and uncles, unless ‘aurents’ or ‘piblings’ catch on.
It’s not too late for niblings
It’s not impossible that one of these suggestions will make it into common usage. The word sibling was around centuries ago but used to mean any relative at all. It was only reintroduced into English and given its current meaning in the 1900s, when early geneticists needed a term for brothers and sisters. So it’s probably not too late to add a new word to the family. You might end up with some niblings after all.