The avuncular aunty and why it’s fine to call your friends a cheeky bint

There was a thing I wanted a character to do. I can’t remember what it is, now. Smile, or wave, or smoke a pipe, or deal a hand of cards, or lovingly tousle a small urchin’s head. Just one of those things that people sometimes do, usually more so in books than in real life.

I really, really wanted her to do it in an avuncular way. You know… in a way that spoke of pipes and grins and slightly raffish jollity, and genuine affection distanced by the knowledge that you might care about that person but you can still put them down and walk away if they start being in any way charmless or squallish or problematic.

You know. Avuncular.

And then I think a bit of gendered language hit me in the face like a cold sock, because I didn’t know if aunties *could* be avuncular. Or if women of any flavour could. The dictionary says they can be  ‘auntly’ or ‘auntlike’ if required, and that’s lovely, it really is, but auntly and auntlike are fiercely awkward words and I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy let alone a character I quite like. Don’t even get me started on ‘materteral’. No-one in my lifetime is going to give anyone else a materteral wave.

A quick look at the online etymology dictionary revealed that the word ‘avuncular’ stems from ‘maternal uncle’, though it was originally thought to mean ‘grandfather’ (from ‘avus’).

Avuncular… an example of gendered language, then?

By the way, etymology is my new favourite coffee-break pastime. It turns out that ‘bint’ comes from the Arabic for ‘daughter’, and thus you and your friends casually and no doubt accurately referring to each other as a cheeky bint is ABSOLUTELY FINE. HONESTLY. IT IS.

Bint is a lovely word. So is avuncular. I’m just not sure if I can use it.

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2 Comments »

  1. Frank Booth Said:

    I love etymology, but I also really like the infuriating over-writing of it to peddle new ideas, in one seminar “atone… and it contains ‘at one'” … and also the places where words steer thoughts in English “We’re angry” we embody it; where as in Spanish “they have anger” it’s a thing they can pick up or put down – much healthier.

    So I think it’s good to change the meaning of these words. Ashamed I think of as meaning “a-shamed” like “astable” because shame is the thing that’s meant to make you say “yeah, that was a pretty dumb idea – I don’t know what I was thinking :D” and ashamed is “I am too embarrassed to think about it” – but really ashamed is the verb..

    So I say contribute to the change for avuncular, there aren’t many people using it 🙂

  2. Magda Knight Said:

    I… I mean… wait. They aren’t? *Rethinks her tendency to use avuncular as often as hi or hello*.

    Love the idea of whether we are or have emotions…


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Shannon A Thompson

You need the world, and the world needs good people.

one bow...

Malena Lott Putnam | storyteller. strategist.

D.E. Atwood

...writes books she wants to read...

Kip Wilson Rechea

Write, travel, eat, repeat.

Encyclopaedia Vanitatum

a dictionary of spectral curiosities

Sarah Hans

Author, Editor, Educator

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