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.

Some reflections on “pandemic”

What pandemic can teach us about democracy

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve last posted. A lot has happened since then—personally and professionally for me, of course, but that’s not interesting or important right now. What’s important is what has been happening in the world.

Amid this change, one thing has remained constant: words, and the many ways we use them to reflect, register, and even revolutionize reality.

Cropped image of the first page of the original copy of the Bill of the Rights of the US Constitution
National Archives
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An etymological tricolor: red, white, and blue

Today, Americans celebrate their brave declaration of independence from British rule on July 4th, 1776 with plenty of red, white, and blue, the colors of its star-spangled banner.

As a nickname for the flag of the United States, the red, white, and blue is found by 1853. But what about those individuals words red, white, and blue? Let’s have a look at their origins, whose ancients roots make the US’s 242 years as a nation this year look ever so young.

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Its flag may be red, white, and blue, but the US is properly a land of many colors. (Pixabay)

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Pulling apart “separation”

This week, US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating families seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border, well, separated our hearts. We’ve seen the cruel ironies of etymology on this blog before. The word separate, alas, is no exception.

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Families, not fences. (Pixabay)

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The etymological routes of “trade”

At the G7 summit in Canada this week, Donald Trump’s recent tariffs are sparking unprecedented trade disputes with some of the US’s closest allies.

We considered the origins of tariff not long back on the blog (and embargo well before it). But how about the word trade itself?

It takes a path into English you might not have guessed.

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Don’t trade on me? (Pixabay)

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What is the “feck” in “feckless”?

Heads up: strong language ahead.

Comedian Samantha Bee sparked controversy this week when she called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for her political complicity. The obscene remark, which Bee has since apologized for, had some wryly observing: why is everyone up in arms over feckless?

I think feckless and cunt are due for the etymological treatment.

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This balloon has lost all its feck. (Pixabay)

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Deducing the roots of “duke”

Upon their marriage today, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle don’t just become husband and wife. They also become the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Now, I won’t dare untangle the long and complex history of British peerage, but I will track down the origin of two of its titles, duke and duchess.

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You basically can thank this guy, Edward III, for the title of Duke and Duchess of Sussex. That, and French and Latin.

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It’s been five years of Mashed Radish. This calls for “punch.”

Mashed Radish turned five this week—and of course I forgot its birthday. Surely I was lost in the origin of some word or another.

Still, the occasion calls for some celebration. Since we’re marking five years, why don’t we toast with some punch?

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If the punch is Mashed Radish pink, sign me up.

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TIME, emoji, and the unusual “with-” in “withdraw”

This past week, TIME magazine’s talented Katy Steinmetz interviewed me for a fantastic piece on the challenges of using words that have offensive histories, such as bulldozer. (Steinmetz also interviewed me back in 2016, you may recall, about the fascinating Japanese linguistics behind words like Pokémon and karaoke.)

Catch up on my writing for the wonderful Emojipedia, too. This month, I wrote about 😏, or Smirking Face emoji, ever smug and suggestive in its many applications in our digital communication.

The verb smirk, for its part, dates back to the Old English smearcian, which was the go-to word for smile until the latter took over in Middle English. Smirk survived, but with a connotation of self-satisfaction. Cognates to smirk are not found in other Germanic languages, but smirk and smile do appear to be related in some way.

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Smirking Face emoji (John Kelly/Emojipedia)

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What is the “tres” in “trespass”?

The recent arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a business associate has sparked outrage, protests, a national conversation on racism, and efforts from Starbucks to address implicit bias among its employees.

It has also sparked, from me, an etymological consideration of two words that have frequently come up in discussion of the troubling incident: trespass and loiter

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Unless you’re white. (Pixabay)

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