The family tree of “uncle”

There are many other relatives to be found in the roots of “uncle.”

A year has passed since my last post, and much has changed, as ever. A great deal for the better, both for me and, more importantly, for the world. But not a little for the worse.

Another change I hope to make to happen is getting back to this blogging business. I’ve gotten rusty at it, if you haven’t noticed—if you’ve stuck around to notice. I’ve missed it.

For now, my thoughts turn to uncles: having uncles, being uncles, losing uncles. And as ever, I turn to the etymology of the word uncle to help process some of these thoughts.

Etymologically, uncle and ranunculus indeed have a “little” bit in common. (Pixabay)

From “grandfather” to uncle

The word uncle joined the English family around 1300, as far as the written record is concerned. Now, if you’ve read enough posts here, that year should loudly announce—like a parking lot-ful of SUV car alarms on a Saturday afternoon at Costco going off all at once—the immediate source of this term: French.

Uncle comes from the French unkle, among other forms. You read that right: unkle, not Urkel. Did I do that? Yes. Yes, I did. (Why did I do that?)

Incidental ‘90s nostalgia aside, the French unkle in turn comes from (regular readers, do you already know what’s coming?) the Latin avunculus.

Avunculus may look familiar. The fun-to-say and -use adjective avuncular—“of or relating to an uncle” and, by extension, “acting like an uncle, as in being kind or generous, especially to younger people”—comes just about directly from the Latin avunculus. Avuncular is first recorded in the early 1800s.

In ancient Rome, avunculus specifically meant “maternal uncle” (your mother’s brother). Its paternal counterpart (your father’s sister) was patruus, based on pater (“father”).

On its way into French, avunculus lost its initial sound, a common process known in linguistics as apheresis. An unstressed syllables, as starts avunculus, is particularly vulnerable to apheresis. The loss of final sounds is called apocope (although the erosion of various endings in languages is a much more complicated story than an one-off instance of apocope).

There’s more to the Latin avunculus. It literally means “little grandfather,” formed from avus (“grandfather, forefather”) and a diminutive suffix, -unculus. You may recognize –unculus in such words as carbuncle, homunculus, and ranunculus (literally “little frog”!), each of which has a neat story all its own. Such diminutives can be referred to as hypocoristic—a fancy term to describe an endearing pet name.

But I digress. I shouldn’t unload on you all my pent-up trivia and trumpery like that weird uncle at family get-togethers. I’ll save that for Thanksgiving, when maybe I’ll corner you on some history of the whole “crazy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner” trope. At least etymology is better than politics? But maybe I’m being naive…

The deeper lineage of Latin’s avus is a Proto-Indo-European root, reconstructed in the form of *awo- and signifying, according to my handy-dandy American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, “any adult male relative other than one’s father.” A brood of other terms for adult male relatives (who are not Dad) are ultimately related to *awo-, including the Old English word for uncle: ēam, which specifically was a maternal uncle. The Old English for a paternal uncle was fædera (fæder being “father”).

The Old English ēam uncled on into Middle English and Scottish English as eme, among other forms, but the cooler, funner, Norman Conquest-ier uncle secured its seat at English’s holiday table—no small feat considering that, in language, when it comes to core vocabulary terms such as those naming family members, blood is often thicker than water. Eme has some surviving kin, though: the surname Eames.

There’s much more to say about uncle, from its use in Uncle Tom and Uncle Sam to its historical slang applications (“pawnbroker”) to expressions like cry uncle and Bob’s your uncle to the metanalysis of nuncle and its delightful shortening, nunk. But I want to turn my attention to my next order of business, and which I do plan to deliver on well before another year has elapsed: aunt.

m ∫ r ∫

This post is dedicated to my late Uncle Chris. I never knew you well, but from to time, you would like one of my tweets about some random or snarky word fact. That was nice. I am grateful for that.

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