Thursday, May 07, 2009

A is for Avuncular and A Nuncle

All right, it's time for more exposition of my dictionary exploration. I know because of the thousands of emails and requests I've received to resume my dictionary writings. (Okay, not really, it's because I can't help it.) Although I haven't written anything recently, I am constantly delving into words and their origins. I thought I would write some of it up tonight.
Something today reminded me of the word "avuncular," which is personally relevant. It means "of or having to do with an uncle" or "similar to an uncle, especially in benevolence or tolerance." It comes from Latin avunculus. The word "uncle" itself derives from the same Latin word.

I, of course, knew the word avuncular, but as I began to research it, I found some other interesting terms. It turns out that in Latin, an avunculus actually only represents a maternal uncle. Avunculus apparently derives from avus (grandfather), so an avunculus is a "lesser grandfather." It doesn't take much imagination to see how avus could derive from Hebrew av (father). See my discussion of av and abba here.
A paternal uncle is a patruus (father's brother is a "second father" from pater, father).
A maternal aunt is known as a matertera in Latin (a second mother, from mater, mother). There is apparently an obscure English word, materteral, in the Oxford English dictionary (in 1823) which predates avuncular (1831), but it is rarely seen, whereas avuncular is in common usage. More on this here. A paternal aunt (father's sister) is called an amita.
That brings us to another concept I wrote about here—a process called false splitting or juncture loss. A chiefly British usage derived easily from the phrase "an uncle" into "a nuncle." The Bard himself used it as follows: "Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?" —Shakespeare

1 comment:

Bonnie said...

very interesting. i love the image second mother/father conjures up ...