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.

Lava: the watery roots of a fiery word

On Hawaii’s Big Island, the Kilauea volcano has been erupting for weeks, its lava consuming whole cars, roads, and homes as it generates deadly vog and laze and heaves lava bombs. More alarms were raised this week as the lava’s molten march risked explosions at a geothermal power station.

But for such a fiery phenomenon, the origin of the word lava is, perhaps ironically, in the wash.

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Laundry day? (Pixabay)

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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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Why do we say “second” and not “twoth”?

Thanks in large part to the impassioned activism of the #NeverAgain movement, the news hasn’t moved on from the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, as it has too often in recent massacres in the US. The pressure is staying on gun control, keeping the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in the hot seat.

The Second Amendment is also in this post’s etymological hot seat. I’m not debating its constitutional interpretation, though. I’m debating why we say second and not twoth.   

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The second hand is really the third hand on a clock, which has no first hand. (Pixabay

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On “shutdowns” and “furloughs”

As the federal government faces a partial shutdown, employees will be placed on furlough. Etymology, though, never stops working, so let’s have a brief look at the origin of these terminating terms.

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The original shutdowns referred to factories. (Pixabay)

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The etymological network of “net”

Say the phrase the net today, and surely the first thing that springs to mind is the internet. It even sounds outdated, conjuring up fossil browsers like Netscape, as we mostly just refer to the technology as the internet or being online.

Net does survive in the expression net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should treat all traffic the same—and rules about which the US Federal Communication Commissions (FCC) repealed last week to great objection. The term was coined by Tim Wu, a professor of media law at Cornell University, in 2003, when net was a more relevant term.

Incredible, though, isn’t it, how the net more immediately calls up email, Twitter, or cat videos than it does, you know, an actual net that catches fish or a soccer ball? How did we get here?

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Nothing but net. (Pixabay)

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Why are moments called watershed?

On Thursday, New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand commented on the ongoing allegations of sexual harassment against prominent men in politics and entertainment, notably including Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor just this week:

I think we are in a watershed moment where it’s going to be an important change for our women, for our daughters, for men and for society about what we deem is acceptable. And in the world we live in today, we won’t tolerate abuse of power and position in any form from anyone.

Across chambers, and across the aisle, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan echoed Gillibrand’s sentiments and language to National Public Radio: “We are having a watershed moment in this country. I think this is a defining moment in this country. And I think it needs to be a defining moment in this country.”

We so often describe “defining moments” of “important change” as “watershed moments.” But what it so pivotal about a watershed?

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Which way will the water go? (Pixabay)

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Persian pleasure gardens, the Christian afterlife, and tropical tax havens: the origins of “paradise”

The 13.4 million-file leak called the Paradise Papers are exposing the offshore, tax-avoiding dealings by some of the world’s richest companies and people, from Facebook to the Queen of England. Boosted by alliteration and allusion to last year’s Panama Papers, the BBC explains the paradise name: 

The Paradise Papers name was chosen because of the idyllic profiles of many of the offshore jurisdictions whose workings are unveiled, including Bermuda, the HQ of the main company involved, Appleby. It also dovetails nicely with the French term for a tax haven—paradis fiscal.

But why do we call tropical islands like Bermuda paradise?

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For the etymological paradise, we need to look to different sands. (Pixabay)

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From “to” to “too”

A trend has spread on social media following the many and disturbing allegations of sexual assault and rape against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein: me too, which tens of thousands women are posting to express that they, too, have been assaulted or harassed.

The little word, too, so simply yet powerfully bringing attention to how pervasive, and pernicious, sexual violence against women is. For today’s post, let’s put the etymological spotlight on it.

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“Too”: moving in the right direction. (Pixabay)

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