New Word: Avuncular

I like noting new words as I come across them. “Avuncular” is one of those words that I thought I knew what it meant, and I was happy reading it, but when I thought about it, I realised actually I didn’t know precisely what it meant! The way to determine if you know what a word means is to try and describe what it means to someone else. If you struggle, you probably don’t quite know.

Google tells me that the word has two definitions:

  1. kind and friendly towards a younger or less experienced person.
    “he was avuncular, reassuring, and trustworthy”
  2. relating to the relationship between men and the children of their siblings

The word therefore must have the same root as the word “uncle”. It appears to come from the Latin “avunculus”, meaning “mother’s brother”. And this Latin word is the origin of both current English words, avuncular and uncle.

It’s interesting that the word has developed with the implications that uncles are nice, kind generous people!

I also learnt that North America has an idiom: “say uncle!”, which is a demand for submission during a fight. Apparently, this developed from the Latin word for father’s brother (rather than mother’s), “patrue”, indicating that one should give respect. The brother of one’s father was accorded equal status with one’s father in Roman society, whereas the maternal uncle was of lower status.

I’ve never come across a language different in respect of paternal/maternal relations quite like this before. Today, one couldn’t tell which side of the family an uncle came from, merely from the name.

I should keep a list of words I don’t understand, and then look them up and make notes. Stay tuned for more!



  1. I’m not sure I’d agree that you don’t know a word if you can’t define it to somebody else, but I’m really bad at explaining things, especially in real time. Or giving directions.

    I love learning the etymologies of words, though. I’m rather fond of the etymology of pain. Is that weird? That’s weird, isn’t it…

    Familial vocabulary can get really wonky in some languages! I chose Thai at random and looked up uncle/aunt. This is what I found(which I confirmed on another page):
    “‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle’ also don’t have direct translations in Thai. The closest are lung , which refers to an elder brother of either your mother or father, and bpâa which refers to an elder sister. aa refers to either a younger brother or younger sister of your mother, and so can be either “Uncle” or “Aunt”. náa is the equivalent on the father’s side.”
    So cool! The elder siblings of your parents are split by their own gender, but the younger siblings are split by your parents’ gender. *shakes head* language will never cease to amaze me.

    1. magicwriter

      Wow that is interesting – and quite complicated too. English has really kept it simple for uncle and aunt then. Fascinating how all that has come out of looking at one little word.

  2. I have to agree with Alex; my vocabulary might be large but I have difficulty explaining words to people, even if I know what they mean; it’s almost like I feel what they mean instead, if that makes sense.

    I didn’t know the word “avuncular”, though. Interesting origins! I love etymology.

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