Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
At its driest, the word avuncular means “of or pertaining to an uncle.” Both the words avuncular and uncle come from the Latin avunculus (literally “little grandfather”), which in ancient Roman times was specifically one’s maternal uncle — one’s mother’s brother. (A paternal uncle was a patruus.)
But that’s just the technical meaning; when we call someone avuncular, we usually mean that they’re kindly and genial, perhaps a bit indulgent. An avuncular person always has a smile and a kind word, and maybe a bad joke that they’ll laugh at even if no one else does.
That sense of avuncular is based on a specific stereotype. There are plenty of uncles who aren’t the slightest bit avuncular in this metaphorical sense. To name a few: Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, Simba’s Uncle Scar (Claudius’s animated, anthropomorphic analogue), and Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon. Exactly where the stereotype of the jolly uncle comes from is unclear, but the metaphorical sense of avuncular has been well established in the language and isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
Of course, any discussion of the word avuncular always leads to one question: Is there an equivalent adjective that refers to an aunt? The answer: Of course!
Like uncle, our word aunt traces back to Latin, to amita — but that word specifically designated a paternal aunt. When English was scrounging around for the female equivalent of avuncular, it stuck to the same maternal side of the family. In Latin, one’s mother’s sister was called a matertera, from which we derive the word materteral (or sometimes materterine). All those front-of-mouth consonants and those two sharp Ts don’t exactly roll off the tongue like the more melodious avuncular, so it’s easy to see why the word hasn’t become popular. It doesn’t even sound like a compliment.
So while there is an auntie equivalent to avuncular, the word is ugly and rarely used. It also doesn’t have a common metaphorical sense like avuncular does.
Does that mean — to answer the question posed in the headline — that it’s okay to call your kind, indulgent aunt (or any such woman) avuncular? Probably. Dictionary editors place no explicit gender limitation on the word’s use. And you wouldn’t be alone doing so; a Google search for “avuncular woman” does yield results, but not many.
But if the woman you’re calling avuncular knows where the word comes from, she might not be thrilled with your word choice. It’s probably best, then, if you choose a clearer, less troublesome adjective. It shouldn’t be too difficult; English is full of them.
Featured image: Anatoliy Karlyuk / Shutterstock; hat tip to Ammon Shea of Merriam-Webster for turning me on to marterteral.
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