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.

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.

american-flag-1030808_1920.jpg
Its flag may be red, white, and blue, but the US is properly a land of many colors. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “An etymological tricolor: red, white, and blue”

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.

fence-690578_1920.jpg
Families, not fences. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “Pulling apart “separation””

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.

sand-1232366_1920.jpg
Don’t trade on me? (Pixabay)

Continue reading “The etymological routes of “trade””

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.

volcano-1784658_1920.jpg
Laundry day? (Pixabay)

Continue reading “Lava: the watery roots of a fiery word”

The long, etymological trek of “caravan”

A so-called caravan has arrived at the US border after trekking thousands of miles across Mexico from Central America. Now numbering in the hundreds, the people, including many women and children, are seeking asylum in the US from violence back home.

Caravan came to prominence earlier in April after Donald Trump tweeted an ominous reference to the group as it made its way to the border. The term has since spread in the media reporting on the migration news.

The asylum seekers have, indeed, come a long way in their efforts to find some safety—and so, too, has the word caravan travelled from afar.

caravan-339564_1920.jpg
A modern desert caravan (Pixabay)

Continue reading “The long, etymological trek of “caravan””

Because there’s always a reason to talk about pets…and etymology

I could have written about Zuckerberg today, with the Facebook CEO in the congressional hot seat. His surname literally means “sugar mountain” in German—and I don’t think that’ll be the next Farmville or Candy Crush any time soon.

I thought to write about raid, which the FBI did to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen on Monday. Raid originates as a Scottish variant on road.

Instead, I settled on pet. April 11th is, apparently, National Pet Day, “celebrating pets and encouraging adoption” since 2005, according to the organizer’s website. The day, as quirky and numerous as these random unofficial holidays are in our social media feeds, also invites some welcome etymological escapism.

IMG_3368.jpg
My pet, Hugo.

Continue reading “Because there’s always a reason to talk about pets…and etymology”

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.   

clock-692416_1920.jpg
The second hand is really the third hand on a clock, which has no first hand. (Pixabay

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

Etymology, with an “eagle” eye

Maybe in some parallel universe it wasn’t the Philadelphia Eagles who won Super Bowl LII. No, not the New England Patriots but the Philadelphia Ernes. For erne was the usual word for “eagle” in Old English, and in my hypothetical Twilight Zone, French and Latin didn’t sack Anglo-Saxon like so many blitzing linebackers.

eagle-2657888_1920.jpg
Etymologically, the Philadelphia Eagles main team color isn’t midnight green. It’s “dark brown” or “black.” (Pixabay)

Continue reading “Etymology, with an “eagle” eye”

The riveting origins of “rivet”

In 1942, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller created one of the iconic images of World War II, of feminism, of America itself.

On a bright yellow background with bold white letters proclaiming “We Can Do It!”, his poster boasts a woman flexing her bicep in a blue uniform and red polka-bot bandana. She was inspired by a 1942 photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley working at the US Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, as Seton Hall University professor James Kimble painstakingly determined.

Parker Fraley passed away at age 96 last Saturday, but she will always be remembered as Rosie the Riveter. But she wasn’t the firstRosie the Riveter, however.

we_can_do_it21
Originally called “We Can Do It!”, now commonly known as the Rosie the Riveter poster (Wikimedia Commons)

Continue reading “The riveting origins of “rivet””