The Grammarphobia Blog

Relatively speaking

(An updated and expanded post about “cousin,” “niece,” and “nephew” appeared on Nov. 9, 2018.)

Q: When I became an uncle for the third time, I had a nephew in addition to two nieces. It was then that I realized I had no way of saying “I have three …” There is also no word for both aunts and uncles. Any reason for this? Does it reflect a special relationship or a neglected one? Do other languages also have this gap?

A: H-m-m. We wish we had an answer.

We can’t say why, but English seems to be missing the words that would denote certain forms of kinship: one word that would mean both niece and nephew, and another that would mean both aunt and uncle.

If any other language has a singular word that refers to both a niece and a nephew, we’re unfamiliar with it. However, other languages do use the masculine plural for a group of both nieces and nephews.

In Spanish, for example, the singulars are sobrino (nephew) and sobrina (niece), but sobrinos can be used for a group of nieces and nephews.

Today, English speakers use “nephews” and “nieces” to mean the sons and daughters of our siblings. But in olden times, these words were also used to designate grandsons and granddaughters, male and female descendants, and, euphemistically, illegitimate sons and daughters (especially those of popes and other churchmen who were supposed to be chaste).

Both “nephew” and “niece” originated in Middle English in the early 1300s, derived from the Latin words nepos (grandson, descendant, or prodigal) and neptis (granddaughter or female descendant).

These words and their counterparts in many other languages are traceable ultimately to an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as nepto, meaning grandson or nephew (the feminine form was nepti). This root is also the ancestor of our word “nepotism.”

Three now obscure English nouns, “neve,” “nepos,” and “nepote,” were also once used to mean nephew or grandson. Maybe we could revive one of them to mean both nephew and niece. Well, it’s only a suggestion.

As for “aunt,” meaning the sister of a parent or the wife of an uncle, the word entered English in the 1200s by way of the Old French ante, which came from the Latin amita (father’s sister).

“Uncle,” meaning the brother of a parent or the husband of an aunt, came into English at around the same time from the Old French uncle and oncle, and ultimately from the Latin avunculus (mother’s brother).

By the way, people often ask why we have an adjective meaning uncle-like (“avuncular”) but none for aunt-like. We posted an item about this auntless issue on the blog a while back. And we posted an entry last month about the history and pronunciation of “aunt.”

(Updated, Sept. 29, 2017.)

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