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Historical Thesaurus: On Kinship

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Continuing on from our Historical Thesaurus week, I’m delighted to be able to bring you another wonderful original post from Professor Christian Kay, who headed up the project. Today she tells us about one of her favourite sections of the HTOED: kinship. You can read her previous OUPblog post here.


One of my favourite sections for browsing in HTOED is 03.01 Society/the community. As with all sections of HTOED, this one proceeds from general concepts through more specific ones, such as 03.01.01 Kinship/relationship, to the very specific, such as 03.01.01.03.01.03 Mother. (One of our reviewers compared our numbering system to “Scandinavian telephone numbers”, but we find it the best way to keep track of complex hierarchies of ideas.) In addition to the usual fascinating array of words, sections like these reflect hundreds of years of changing social history.

09 - 247 Prof Christian Kay 006The lists of synonyms show that kinship, and the obligations it imposes, has been important since Anglo-Saxon times. As might be expected, words for basic family relationships have remained stable: modern English words like mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister can be traced directly back to Old English. However, even in this area there are surprises: the Old English eam has been replaced by French-derived uncle, and there appears to be no word for aunt at all.

While this situation might come as a relief to some – I think particularly of P.G. Wodehouse’s character Bertie Wooster, terrorized by a platoon of formidable aunts – it has a straightforward explanation. If we look down 03.01.01.03.07 Aunt to its sub-categories, we find that there were in fact two Old English words for aunt, denoting a maternal and a paternal aunt respectively. There was also a word for a paternal uncle, and it is possible, though scholars disagree about this, that eam originally meant a maternal uncle. (In HTOED we hedge our bets by putting the word under both Uncle and Maternal Uncle.) Nephews and nieces were also distinguished by the side of the family they belonged to.

Systems like this were common in European languages and still survive in some of them, such as the Scandinavian languages. So why not in English? The answer to this question, as to others about English, is the Norman conquest of 1066, which introduced many French words along with changes in the legal system. One feature of the new system was primogeniture, whereby property passes to the oldest son rather than being divided among all the children. The important line of descent is thus from father to son, with the linguistic effect that there is no longer any great need for terms which distinguish, for example, maternal and paternal uncles. Primogeniture has the advantage of preserving large estates intact, though it may seem unfair in other ways: English novels are full of younger sons who have to make their own way in the world, and of daughters whose marriage prospects are blighted by lack of dowry.

Although some kinship terms are very precise, others are fuzzy in meaning. Here we can think of our own usage, where uncle can mean the husband of one’s aunt or a family friend as well as a blood relation (and other things). A glance at the HTOED index will reveal a similar fuzziness in other terms, such as father-in-law, classified under its original meaning of ‘step-father’, or sister classified with ‘sister-in-law’. Such examples sound a warning for readers of older literature: a word may not always mean what it appears to mean. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, published in 1813, Mr Darcy has written to his sister, Georgiana, telling her that he is engaged to Elizabeth Bennett. The story continues: “The joy which Miss Darcy expressed on receiving similar information was as sincere as her brother’s in sending it. Four sides of paper were insufficient to contain all her delight, and all her earnest desire of being loved by her sister.”

Why does she use the word sister when she plainly means “sister-in-law”? The explanation may be that people then often lived in bigger groups than we do nowadays; unmarried women would live with their parents, or, failing them, being in need of a male protector, with the family of a brother or a married sister or aunt. There was no need to distinguish between sisters and sisters-in-law in the family circle, so the term sister tended to be used for both relationships. A similar vagueness can be heard nowadays with reference to step-sisters or half-sisters.

Nuggets of social history can also be found by looking at recent additions to the kinship categories. Before the twentieth century, people don’t seem to have found it necessary to distinguish the extended family (first recorded in 1942), since most families were extended. We can also speculate about the factors behind weekend father (1962), or pram-pusher for a young mother (1935). Many terms come in from psychology, such as mother-substitute (1943) or sibling (1903), supplying a gap for a term covering both brother and sister. The range of colloquial, and possibly less respectful, terms for one’s parents also increases, including dad and daddy as early as 1500, American terms like poppa (1897) and paw (1903; also common in Scots), and the rhyming slang pot and pan (= “old man” = “father”) in 1906. Parallel categories for other relatives reveal a similar range of expressions to the kinship browser.

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