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Relatively speaking, a paucity of words

A look at some lexical gaps in our vocabulary of kinship.

By Ruth Walker / November 16, 2007



"Ma-ma" or "Da-da" is often the first word a child speaks.

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But once the child grows up to be a full-service speaker of English, he or she may notice that not all relationships are as easy to identify as "Mommy" and "Daddy."

There are some gaps in our vocabulary of relationships – instances where we don't have a really satisfying term to connect A to B.

"Lexical gaps" is a term for these missing words, or rather for the spaces in the language that their absence leaves unfilled.

One such gap is the need for a better term than "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" for those occasions when the "friends" in question are no longer otherwise referred to as "boys" or "girls."

A good term for adult offspring is another lexical gap. Parents commonly speak of their sons and daughters as "our children" when they are indeed children. But once they're grown, they don't refer to them as "our adults." Instead, we get absurdities such as, "She has named her three children as executors of her estate."

I ran across another one of these the other day while reviewing a commentary proposing, in effect, a new guest-worker program for immigrants to the United States. Once their immigration status was clarified and they were out of the shadows, the piece said, they would be free to make family visits across the borders. But to say, "Families would be able to visit one another," sounded too much like, "The Smiths would be able to visit the Browns."

What we really needed was a way to describe José going back to the village to see Maria and the kids, or maybe José and Maria and the kids going back home to visit the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I ended up concluding that "relatives" was probably the best option. But it's not a very richly emotive word, is it? Compare and contrast the phrases "family visit" and "visiting relatives." Which has the warmer vibe?

English has plenty of old-fashioned synonyms for family, especially in the broader sense: clan, tribe, even "people," as in, "Their people came over from Ireland during the 19th century."

"Kin" is wonderfully concise but sounds backwoodsy to modern ears; it lives on largely in the idiom "next of kin" – a phrase that doesn't have a lot of happy associations.

"Kith and kin" is another term that doesn't get much use today. "Kith," rooted in the idea of something or someplace that is known, first meant the country someone knows, and later came to mean one's circle of acquaintance.

So "kith and kin" is another way of saying "friends and family." (I don't mean to write a kith-and-tell piece here.)

The trouble with all these older terms is that they refer to groups. Perhaps as a reflection of our individualistic (atomized?) society, collective nouns seem to be giving way to expressions that signal the presence of the individuals within the group. Thus "I have family in that part of the country" becomes "I have family members there." As an alternative to "relative," Visual Thesaurus offers "kinsperson," a word our forebears knew not.

"Relations" is another possibility here, but it sounds a little quaint, and like "troops," is one of those plurals that don't really have a singular, except in the idiom "to be treated like a poor relation."

To anyone who grew up within the sound of an adult voice reading aloud from the "Winnie-the-Pooh" books, "relations" calls up associations with "Rabbit's relations."

Maybe "relative" is the best we can do here. Maybe the quest for a single word that is equal-opportunity, common-gender, and indisputably singular or plural and also packs some punch is just foolish.

After all, families are not about individuals; they're about groups. And in the up-close and personal circle of the family, gender naturally plays a different role than in the more public spheres of citizenship or employment, for instance. A voter is a voter, but your mother is not your father.

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