As with the polyglot story, I wasn’t expecting to post Imani Perry’s What Black Women Hear When They’re Called “Auntie”, even though it was very much language-related, because I was weary just thinking about the hot takes it might provoke from people who had no experience with the issue and yet would instantly form doggedly held opinions about it, but it was so brilliantly written and showed such a nuanced understanding of how to approach difficult areas of language that I thought what the hell, I’ll go for it. Herewith some excerpts:

In the spring of 2017, I noticed that young Black people on social media were referring to congressperson Maxine Waters as “Auntie Maxine.” It was a nickname given in response to her witty, acerbic, and wise comments about Donald Trump. A digital public sphere, horrified by his behavior, delighted in Waters’ giving him hell.

That nickname was a harbinger of something that has since become widespread: a renewed use in public of the word auntie in reference to Black women. I must admit, I didn’t like it at first. I was irritated that a congressperson was being called “Auntie” instead of by her professional title. That is a sign of my own formalism, rooted in the culture of the Black South. I am always wary of those who might diminish the hard-earned professional standing of a Black person.

Perry mentions “other distinguished Black women [who] have rejected being called Auntie” and continues:

Though each woman has described her own reasons for rejecting the term, the common thread is the history of older Black women being referred to as Auntie by white people during slavery and Jim Crow. It was, in that context, at once a sign of age and a mark of diminishment. Black women were deemed unworthy of being called Mrs. or ma’am, or, as we say in U.S. Black English, “putting a handle on their names.”

In response to that insult, in the Jim Crow South it became common for Black people to refer to respected elders as Miss or Mr. followed by a first name, if the person was well known, and to maintain the formality of a last-name designation in general. They jealously guarded these markers of respect in defiance of the ways the larger society denied them respect at every turn.

Other reasons auntie has been rejected is that the term is considered too familiar, assuming a connection that doesn’t exist. And some have spoken out about an implicit ageism in the term, and feeling that to be called an auntie means you must perform some kind of caretaking or advisory service for younger people. Auntie suggests “older than me,” and that can feel like a red flag.

When these and other Black American women say they don’t want to be called “Auntie” in public, a common response is to tell them that in most of the Black world (Africa and the Caribbean) as well as Asian cultures, auntie is a respectful term for an elder. In those cultural contexts, auntie is not intended as an insult. It is a sign of appropriateness and a different kind of formalism. And even if it is suggestive of the sexism that exists in nearly every culture when it comes to the place of older women, in these global cultural traditions, auntie is notably different from the racist auntie language in the history of the United States.

Moreover, even in the Black American context, our traditions of “fictive kinship”—which refers to how we create networks of family that are neither biological nor legal, but made up of deeply respected social relations—are such that we sometimes also use the word auntie to describe people who are not members of our biological or legal families. But unlike in other parts of the world, this is not usually a general term, but rather a term that goes along with a specific forged relationship.

The way the global use of the word auntie is colliding with our domestic history reveals how much social media has pushed us to think beyond the boundaries of our nation state. We aren’t just talking to people who share our citizenships or identities. There are active discussions beyond the boundaries of the nation about the contours of Blackness.

Then she generalizes in a way that made me cheer and decide to post it:

The different social meanings of auntie teach us something important about language. Nouns, especially those that express a relationship, aren’t simply abstract concepts. Those words are contextual. The meanings behind their utterance depend upon the habits and dispositions of their speakers and listeners. To designate something as an insult or praise because of a stated intention or perception is too simplistic. I’m afraid if we really want to “get” language, we have to hold space for contested and conflicted meanings.

That said, it should go without saying that regardless of intent, we ought to know not to call people by terms that they reject. Period. Nobody is your auntie who says she does not want to be your auntie, and it is disrespectful to tell her she must be. […]

Young Black people are living in a challenging moment. The rise in white-supremacist ideology and violence in the past decade, combined with the backlash against younger generations’ exploration of sexuality and gender identity, the reality of their economic precarity, and the trauma of a global pandemic, weighs heavily on young people. And I think many of them are crafting or imagining fictive kinship bonds with public figures because they’re looking for connection and guidance on not just an intellectual level, but an emotional one, too. They seek to be anchored in a society that seems to revel in their culture without valuing their lives. They do want something from us older folks—something that no one is required to give. But that desire comes with an expression and appreciation for the elders who have their necks out in a difficult time, or those who can just bring some joy and levity to heavy seasons.

So, I’ve grown tender when it comes to auntie. But I’m still watching and vigilant when it comes to language. In the 21st century, much of the Black popular culture unfolds before a global digital public. So much so that there are constant conversations about how to protect Black cultural exchanges from the voraciousness of the mainstream. Companies are all too eager to access the “cool” in Black culture without recognition, appreciation, or compensation. People partake and distort meanings from cultures they neither fully understand nor respect.

The point is this: Language is always complicated in heterogeneous societies. And on the internet it is even more complicated because digital communities are porous and amorphous. We often don’t have any idea to whom we are speaking or listening, or whether we share a cultural, political, or generational common ground with that person. People of Generation X and older (perhaps even some elder Millennials) are not digital natives, and the skepticism we have toward avatars whom we cannot place in the analog world is significant. […]

I have children who are 18 and 15 years old. Over the course of their lives, they have challenged me consistently about my ideas of propriety and call out moments when my formalism is misdirected because something more important is at stake. Because of the ways they have taught me, when I find a new turn of phrase or concept jarring, I try to spend time thinking about it rather than following my knee-jerk reaction. Because if I am to be of use to young people, I must understand where they’re coming from. […]

In reality, not many people call me “Auntie.” Professionally, people call me “Dr.” or “Professor.” I don’t expect a “handle” from peers my age. But the young people in my family also mostly call me “Imani,” just like I grew up calling my aunties by their first names. (Unlike some Black American families we didn’t make a big deal of handles and titles.) But there are a handful of children to whom I am auntie, by family or fictive kinship. And when they say “Auntie” or “Titi” or “Tati,” what I hear is gratitude and love. And I am grateful in return. So now, when the word comes from a young Black person I don’t know, but who clearly is grateful for what I’m sharing and understands that my lifework is in large measure motivated by love for them, I absolutely feel honored to be their “auntie.”

That combination of thoughtful concern and generosity, along with an effort to understand “contested and conflicted meanings” and the usage of younger generations, is what I strive for. Being an old fogy is fun, and I enjoy waving my cane from time to time, but it’s important to remain open to the new, or you become just another laudator temporis acti, a walking fossil.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t know who these anonymous interlocutors are whose “common response is to tell [objectors] that in most of the Black world (Africa and the Caribbean) as well as Asian cultures, auntie is a respectful term for an elder,” and the phrasing almost makes it sound like someone who was out searching wikipedia for rationales to defend a position already taken. But I do wonder to what extent the Young People in the U.S. who are adopting the controversial usage (or at least some “early adopters” whose usage then cued that of others) have been directly exposed to the usage among immigrant groups and find it straightforwardly natural-sounding because of that exposure.

    Two datapoints: First, my seven-year-old refers to a limited set of adult females outside of the extended family (mostly close friends of his Taiwanese-American mother) as “Auntie Firstname,” which is a usage cued by his mother.

    Second, as best as I can recall, when my older kids were young they referred to exactly one close friend of their mother (not yet deceased at the time, and not part of an immigrant group prone to the usage) as “Auntie Firstname” or maybe it was “Tante Firstname.” Since it was only the one it seems less likely that it was cued by their mother and perhaps more likely that it was encouraged by the lady in question. She was an immigrant from Iran and I have no information either way whether it’s a common usage in that immigrant group.

    Unrelatedly, it may say something noteworthy about American society (not specific to any one racial group) that certain people who are in fact older than the person addressing them in such-and-such well-intentioned way are made uncomfortable by a usage that points out or implies their relative age. A status/power hierarchy in which young people are deferential (at least rhetorically …) to their elders is very common cross-culturally and I daresay was common in Western cultures until the Goddam Baby Boomers came along with their cult of Eternal Youth.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    In Kusaal, the polite way to address an unrelated person of the same or greater age as oneself is “my parent-in-law.”

  3. the Goddam Baby Boomers

    *waves cane agitatedly*

  4. I think I mentioned that here before – when I grew up, it was normal for little children to address any adults they didn’t know as Tante or Onkel, and even for older children to address older relatives and close family friends as Tante/Onkel Firstname. This has been totally out of style for at least 20 years.

  5. J.W. Brewer says


    And I should have told him
    “No, you’re not old”
    And I should have let him go …*

    *Supposedly written for too-old-to-be-an-actual-Boomer Spencer Dryden, who turned 30 during the recording sessions and whose 84th birthday would have been yesterday had he lived so long.

  6. Mario Puzo once explained that he grew up with “Godfather” being a term comparable to “Uncle”, which you’d use for friends of your parents. He took literary liberties with it and the rest is history.

    “Auntie” is widespread in Hawai‘i as a term for an elder, a Hawaiian one anyway (maybe Asian, too, but not white, I think.) The dynamics of respect and cultual co-opting are quite distinct from those of African Americans on the mainland, and I have scant understanding of them.

  7. I suspect such relationship terms are very commonly fraught and hard for outsiders to use correctly.

  8. “Fictive kinship” is the most common use of auntie I have encountered in the African-American community. (My family sometimes socializes* at events where we are the only white people present. We have a tremendous amount of fun, and usually, we are welcomed graciously, although there have been occasional minor moments of friction. I was dancing with a friend at her wedding reception, and apparently the groom’s father—whom I had not previously met—asked his son, “Who the hell is that white boy dancing your wife?”) Most of our African-American family friends have the children address us and their other adult friends as “auntie” and “uncle.” My wife reciprocates, referring to our friends as “Uncle Marcus,” “Auntie Lashonda,” etc. in front of our kids. I also do that sometimes, but I am not quite as at home with it. One thing that I find a little odd is that auntie seems like a diminutive, and there is no analogous form for uncles in English.

    * Unfortunately, we don’t get to these kinds of events nearly as often as we used to. Part of it has obviously been the pandemic. However, we have also fallen out with the African-American family that we used to be closest to—and exactly because of “the backlash against younger generations’ exploration of sexuality and gender identity” that Perry mentions. My wife broke with someone who had been probably her closest friend, because the friend refused to accept her own child’s transgender identity.

  9. Man, all this stuff is so complicated! But we’d better figure out how to deal with it…

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    To one of Brett’s issues, I take it there is considerable variation within AmEng (presumably along axes of ethnicity, class, and geography) as to whether “Aunt Firstname” or “Auntie Firstname” is the default form (neither unusually formal nor unusually informal) for within-family usage. In my own pre-marriage family it’s always Aunt* not Auntie in that context, but I have come to accept over time that my own family’s usage is not only not normative it’s not even necessarily median or modal across the full range of varieties of AmEng usage. My wife by contrast refers when talking to our children to their “true aunts” such as my brother’s wife as “Auntie Firstname,” making the “Auntie Firstname” usage for fictive kin she encourages completely consistent with that for actual kin whereas for me there would be a lack of parallelism.

    *As luck would have it, for all four of my immediate aunts (excluding great-aunts and whatnot), the “Firstname” in “Aunt Firstname” is strictly speaking a “dimunitive” nickname rather than their formal/legal first name. But I’ve never heard anyone in the family refer to Aunt Sally as Aunt Sara, or Aunt Connie as Aunt Constance, etc.

  11. Yeah, I’ve never used Auntie in my life — it was always “Aunt Bettie,” “Aunt Marty,” and so on. And I never addressed anyone but an actual aunt as such.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    When the young Kant
    Was told to kiss his aunt,
    He obeyed the Categorical Must
    But only just.

  13. I somehow just cannot bring myself to unmerge ant and aunt. Saying [ɑːnt] is unbearable.

  14. I should also mention that my mother (raised in New England, although all her relatives were from western Canada) always referred to aunts (mine and hers) as “Auntie [Whoever].” However, when she wrote letters to her aunts or helped me with letters to her sisters, they were always opened with “Dear Aunt [Whoever].”

  15. Australian Aboriginal elders (by elders I don’t mean old people, but it’s a technical term used to describe adults respected in their communities for their leadership qualities & knowledge of traditional customs) are also called Uncle and Auntie, as in Uncle Ben or Auntie Doreen.

    In Europe it’s common for children to address unrelated adults in this way. In my part of Croatia, the equivalent terms are ‘barba’ = uncle and ‘teta’ = aunt. When i moved to Croatia as a child, i found it confusing that there was no equivalent in English.

  16. All of my aunts and great-aunts were “Aunt ___”, except for one great-aunt who for some reason was simply “Auntie” with no name, rather than “Aunt Marcella”.

  17. – correction –

    The last sentence should say:
    When i moved from Croatia to Australia…

  18. Lars Mathiesen says

    @Hans, in Swedish talking-to-kids, adults of a certain age are tant and farbror. My impression is that the usage was waning while I lived there, though. (I moved back to Copenhagen 4.5 years ago now, so my punditry on Swedish will need more and more salt. I will only warn this once).

    In Denmark, we (at least my generation) have the full setup of parent-generation words, siblings morbror, moster, farbror, faster and by marriage onkel, tante, and that was how we kids were supposed to think about them: Onkel Åge was married to Faster Kis (Kirsten) and so on. Strangers were dame and mand: Kan du så sige undskyld til damen!. There was an interval from late teens to about 30 where I don’t know what you’d say, obviously not a tant or dame, or a farbror.

    The Swedes have mislaid onkel and the parent’s sister ones, even though they are still in the dictionary, and I simply don’t know what modern Swedish kids call their mother’s brother (paucity of stimulus). Now I need to ask some Swedes, it nags me.

  19. Lars Mathiesen says

    So now the Swedes admit they have all the morbror, moster, farbror, faster words, they just kept me from hearing them while I was there. But they (at least the respondent) extend them to aunts and uncles by marriage and don’t use tant and onkel for family.

  20. Kate Bunting says

    Only this week I was involved in a discussion on the Stack Exchange forum ‘English Language Learners’ with someone who said that calling a younger woman ‘auntie’ (obasan) in Japanese was rude because it implied that she was old, and was there an equivalent in English?
    As an English child in the 1950s/60s I was taught to call family friends ‘Auntie/Uncle Firstname’ because it was bad manners for a child to address an adult by their given name alone.

  21. TV and film has given me the impression that there is a specifically African-American pronunciation of “aunt(ie)” with an emphatic PALM vowel.

    One of my niblings, as a two-year-old, used [ˈʌnt͡kli] for aunties and uncles alike.

  22. In Swedish, people usually don’t use titles to address anyone, other than a few exceptions (parents, royalty, members of parliament, sometimes teachers…). It comes across as oldfashioned to talk to aunt Anna and call her “moster (faster) Anna”, and the same for morbror (farbror) Lars. Relatives by marriage often get described by a corresponding title: the husband of your moster is your morbror. If you want to be exact, you can say “mosters man” (husband of aunt), or you can say “ingift morbror” (uncle by marriage).

    “Tant” and “farbror” did have their use for adults in your parents’ generation, maybe relatives but often strangers. Now they are mostly used to describe old people (whatever that means). I’m not familiar with “onkel”, that is, I’ve heard it somewhere but don’t have a feeling for how it’s used. A women sometimes get addressed by strangers as “damen” or even “madam”, but it’s rare. Not sure what men get addressed as. Mannen? Bror?

  23. Where’s Trond Engen to give us the norsk perspective?

  24. Trond Engen says

    Where’s Trond Engen

    Family stuff. I’m here now.

    The Norwegian perspective on this is

    1. The farbror/faster/morbror/moster system is old-fashioned and literary. We use onkel and tante.

    2. We don’t discern between uncles and aunts by blood and by marriage, They’re onkel/tante all around.

    3. The default value of onkel and tante is “sibling or in-law of parents”, but it’s regularly extended to great uncles and aunts, cousins of parents, and even close friends of parents.

    4. A couple of generations ago leaders at youth camps and suchlike could claim the title onkel, but that sounds creepy now, Parents may still use tante and (marginally) onkel for a daycare professional, without any negative connotations implied, but daycare professionals don’t use it themselves, and some may take offence.

    5. The creepiness does not extend to Swedish. While farbror/tant for any familiar adult sounds exotic to a modern Norwegian ear, we’ve been accustomed to it through Swedish childrens’ TV, and it’s part of our romantic image of Sweden.

  25. Trond Engen says

    I distinctly remember the first time a mother told her child Si takk til mannen. “Say thank you to the man”. I was in my mid-twenties, and I realised that I now officially belonged to the generation of parents.

  26. Speak of the Trond, and he appears… Mange takk!

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    We don’t discern between uncles and aunts by blood and by marriage

    This is so bizarre from a Kusaasi perspective that even Kusaasi colleagues who spoke excellent English had difficulty believing my assurances that it was so in English.

  28. 3. The default value of onkel and tante is “sibling or in-law of parents”, but it’s regularly extended to great uncles and aunts, cousins of parents, and even close friends of parents.
    That’s basically the system I know from my childhood. Specifically, the default value was assumed when an adult used those words, although even in that case they were and are also used for great(repeat)-aunts / uncles and other older relatives – we had an Onkel to whom we were quite close who was the brother-in-law of my paternal great-grandmother.

  29. I sent Songdog Trond’s comment, and he responded:

    In my Duolingo practice (40 day streak!) I was surprised to hear “være” (as in “være så god”, “være så snill”) pronounced with two distinct syllables instead of the single syllable that I use.

    Maybe I’m misremembering how I learned to say it, but I have a suspicion that I internalized a Trøndersk pronunciation there. I haven’t tried to confirm that, but it’s a pretty reasonable guess. What’s maybe more of a mystery is how I managed not to shift despite four semesters of Norwegian in New York. My teacher was from Stavanger and I think she said her Norwegian was typical of Bergen. In any event it wasn’t an Oslo accent, which is probably what Duolingo is going with.

    I found this, which is inconclusive but suggestive:

    It says that there’s a vowel shift in Trøndersk from «være» to «vårrå» which clearly indicates the second syllable but it also says that the infinitive form drops the ending: from «å være» to «å vær».

    «Være så god» is an imperative, not an infinitive, and not only do I not remember how imperatives are former, I doubt that knowing this would let me predict the pronunciation in Trøndersk.

    I am bringing it here (with his permission) to get Trond’s thoughts on this. As I told Songdog: “My mother said it with one syllable, so that’s the way I learned it too (her family was from the Bergen region).”

  30. Jen in Edinburgh says

    A couple of generations ago leaders at youth camps and suchlike could claim the title onkel, but that sounds creepy now

    Lillebjørn Nilsen was already being a bit scathing about it in 1979

    ‘Så kom det fram en mann som kalte seg for “onkel”,
    men ingen av oss kjente’n ifra før…’

  31. David Marjanović says

    This has been totally out of style for at least 20 years.

    Over 30 in my experience, and I never heard Onkel Doktor in the wild either. But the Kindergartentante seems to be going nowhere.

    When the young Kant
    Was told to kiss his aunt,
    He obeyed the Categorical Must
    But only just.

    Unvermutet wie zumeist
    kommt die Tante zugereist.
    Herzlich hat man sie geküsst,
    weil sie sehr vermöglich ist.

    – Wilhelm Busch

    and by marriage onkel, tante

    *galaxy brain*

  32. The traditional Chinese (rueal Taiwan Chinese around 1960-1970) nomenclature for relatives makes minute distinctions, e.g. father’s older brother vs. father’s younger brother (the former has absolute precedence). Relatives on your father’s side are a completely different group than relatives on your mother’s side; the latter are much more distant in the naming system and the legal system, even if they are closer in actual fact. Things like inheritance rights and clan membership rights are sometimes seriously affected by some of the kinship distinctions that we would regard as minute.

    But a friend of mine who was totally up on the patrilineal bias of Chinese society said that in real life he would run into functioning family groups which were defined in the female line — a mother and her sisters and their daughters, etc.

    Seniority is also central in Japan. A semi-Americanized Japanese war bride I knew told a story on herself. She had become good friends with a black American neighbor woman . After they had been friends for several years she found out that her friend was actually 20 years younger than she looked, and the woman I knew was appalled and ashamed, because all along, thinking that her friend was younger than her, she had been relating to her in a familiar rather than in a respectful manner,

  33. Trond Engen says

    Songdog should definitely trust his own analysis of this. I see three explanations for the error, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

    1. There’s a tendency to replace the imperative with the infinitive when talking carefully to small children and dogs, since wrong grammar is especially helpful to the helpless. It’s reasonable that this also applies to foreigners.

    2. Since the imperative and infinitive are identical in English, the sentences can have been contaminated by a literal translation or non-native grammar somewhere in the process of making the material.

    3. Modern Urban Trøndersk has replaced the equalized forms (like vårrå) with apocopated forms of standard Bokmål infinitives (i.e. NB. være ~ MUT vær), identical to the regular imperatives. A Trønder making pronunciation examples for foreign learners could conceivably produce a hypercorrect -e in the imperative.
    Edit: Some (especially Northern) dialects have the merger by regular development. The hypercorrection hypothesis applies equally well to them.

  34. Lars Mathiesen says

    I remember legeonkel as a concept from my childhood, though I’m not sure I ever was in the presence of one. One quotation in the ODS refers to lege-onkler og -tanter who keep kids entertained while parents attend church. It would be a slightly shuddersome word to use now*. Hyggeonkel might still be used of someone who likes to arrange some hygge for his friends (not kids). Where hygge may mean actual hygge, or weed.

    My contact with scouting was very brief, but if anything we called the troop leader Akela.

    Also børnehavefrøkner. Back then they had to be unmarried, regardless of age, and were all female (of course). They have now been up-qualified to pædagoger and are not.
    (*) Nielsen, 1979

  35. @John Emerson: half of your war-bride anecdote needs inversion; I hope it was that the neighbor looked 20 years younger than she was.

    A polite South-Asian Australian boy is the only person I have ever heard address his uncle as “Uncle” tout court.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    the neighbor looked 20 years younger than she was.

    It’s an error I’ve often made as well: black skin ages a lot better than white skin*, all things being equal.

    What with the skin cancer and the macular degeneration and so forth, I have to say that if there weren’t so just damn many white people in the world, you’d have to say that white skin was a hereditary genetic defect. I mean, getting less rickets is great and all**, but still

    * Whether due to the European mutation or the Far Eastern one.

    ** Worked for me. I’ve not had rickets even once.

  37. Trond Engen says

    My contact with scouting will be 45 years this autumn. Onkel wouldn’t work there at all, and wouldn’t a couple of generations ago either. Completely different concepts.

    I’m thinking of those lege-onkler of yours. It may actually always have been meant to overcome kids’ natural reserved attitude to unknown adults — a trick to get small kids out of hearing during Sunday service, but increasingly transparently faux-familiar, and thus creepy, as they grow older.

  38. macular degeneration

    Does macular pigment correlate with skin melanin?

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    Macular degeneration is much commoner in pale persons (and among pale persons, commoner among those with paler irises.)

    Darker-skinned people do indeed have more pigmented retinas in general than paler-skinned people.

    However, visible-to-ophthalmologists macular pigment is actually a sign of retinal damage. The retinal pigment epithelium (its outermost/deepest layer), which, when I were a lad, was thought to sit there in a lumpen fashion doing nothing but stop internal reflection, is now known to be a hyperactive layer continually gobbling up the waste products of retinal metabolism. Visible retinal pigmentation is a sign that it’s had to go beyond the regular call of duty.

    When I worked in Africa, I saw virtually no macular degneration, partly because the locals were much less prone to it, partly because there was a much lower proportion of people in that age group in any case.

    There is also a possibility that lack of Vitamin A (the norm rather than the exception in the area I lived in in Ghana, alas) actually makes you less likely to get the commonest sort of macular degeneration. I wouldn’t recommend this as a prophylactic strategy, though. It makes you more likely to, like, die.

  40. I grew up among Southern American missionaries in Japan, where we kids (MKs) called all the adult missionaries Uncle Y and Aunt X, though we never called each other cousins. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, most missionary families had maids, who were always called and referred to as Tanaka-san, Suzuki-san, etc. I don’t know if the Canadian, Scandinavian, and Northern American missionaries had similar usage. Southern Baptists and Southern Presbyterians had the largest number of missionary families, many with 3-5 kids, so there were lots of aunts and uncles.

    My father had six brothers and one sister. He called his youngest brother Junior and his sister Sister, so we referred to them as Uncle Junior and Aunt Sister, although I don’t think we ever addressed them that way when we met them on furlough.

    When I did fieldwork in a Papua New Guinea village in the 1970s, my host family and I relied on fictive kinship usage. Sons and daughters had birth-order names, so like other eldest sons, I could be addressed as Alisa, although many people referred to me as bumewe ‘foreigner’, with a wide range of connotations, from Tok Pisin masta (white male) to alien (for species). The birth-order names indicated some degree of hierarchy among same-sex siblings. The seventh son and the sixth daughter were called Ase Mou, lit. ‘Name None’, or Ase ‘Name’ for short. Cross-cousin relationships were most most free and easy, and my favorite language teacher was my host mother’s nephew who working for the village transport company whose diesel-powered boat plied the route between the village and Lae. He would write me jocular letters relaying exaggerated gossip about my adaptation to village life. I saw him one last time when I made a trek back to the village in 2019, but his dementia was advanced and he died last year. The children of my old agemates from the village addressed me as Uncle.

  41. phdesmond says

    As to the existence of a diminutive form in English for “uncle,” the grown daughter of a 70-year-old woman friend of mine called me “Unka” [no first name]. Her mother’s husband, who was not the daughter’s father, was “Pops.”

  42. I’ve been calling my slightly elder close family acquaintances “elder sister” and “elder brother” and my slight older older ones “aunt” and “uncle” my whole life. The tradition is dying out, but I have one “aunt” that I still think of as as an aunt.

  43. I’m in my thirties and she’s in her seventies, and we’re not related, but she is like a mother to me.

  44. John Cowan says

    Then perhaps mother would be a better title? I was incredibly touched when my mother-in-law addressed me as son, 15-odd years after the death of my mother.

  45. There’s a big difference between a family acquaintance, however close, and a mother-in-law. I personally would find it very weird to be addressed as “son” by the former, and I doubt I’m alone in that. I certainly would never dream of addressing anyone but my mother as “mother.”

  46. J.W. Brewer says

    I am struck by one small detail in Joel’s recollections that has nothing to do with fictive-kin terminology. In his day, the gaijin missionary families addressed their maids as SURNAME-san, but during the Japanese interlude in my own boyhood (1973-76) we addressed our maid as GIVENNAME-san. My parents must have been instructed by some village elder (like a gaijin who’d already lived there a year or two?) in the proper/respectful form of address rather than just guessing. Don’t know if there had been a Japan-wide shift in the space of a decade or so, or if the sociological differences between the multinational-corporate subset of gaijins and the missionary subset somehow played a role, or what.

    My dad’s gaijin work colleagues (and the gaijin fathers of my ASIJ classmates) were definitely all MR. SURNAME rather than UNCLE GIVENNAME, just like back in the States but the fictive-kin thing feels more plausible in an ecclesiastical environment anyway, although with the ironic touch that these were presumably the sort of old-timey Protestants who thought that addressing ones pastor as “Father So-and-So” was not only weird but un-Biblical.

  47. John Emerson says

    I call anyone “Mom”, even guys, if they offer me a bit of unwanted advice.

    No reflection on my own mom, who wasn’t like that at all.

  48. David Marjanović says

    The only person I’ve ever heard addressed as Mutter was my paternal grandmother, by my mother – who addresses and refers to her mother as Mutti, which seems to be universal in her generation but wholly absent from the next (or, I’m old enough to say now, any thereafter). My father has picked that up.

  49. My sons and I spent some time yesterday at a drop-in reopening party for the barbershop run by somebody we know. (It was another one of those events where we were the only white people there.) As we were eating, I observed a possibly relevant interaction between members of two African-American families, neither of which I knew. A boy (aged about four) sitting near me addressed a nearby adult as “Titi,” which prompted some laughs. The man reminded the boy that his name was not “Titi” but “Tutu” (presumably after the South African archbishop).

  50. Lars Mathiesen says

    I’ll say Ja, mor as well if people give me advice I don’t think I need in an overbearing manner. (Don’t ask me how often I’m wrong, please).

    But it’s not an reflection of a mother-son-like relationship, quite the contrary, it’s a protest: “Please stop reminding me of a stereotypical mom!”

    Transactionally it’s a sort of nuke, it kicks attention from whatever was being discussed to a meta level of bad manners and obnoxiousness. And like any atomic arsenal, it’s best kept in reserve for when no other hints work — I don’t remember when I last felt I had to use it except in pretend with a friend.

  51. who addresses and refers to her mother as Mutti, which seems to be universal in her generation but wholly absent from the next (or, I’m old enough to say now, any thereafter)
    My mother (b. 1943) addressed hers that way as well, and like you, I wouldn’t expect people born after the 50s to use that address; my generation used Mama or Mami, which still seem to be the usual words. Mutter is very formal; as an address, it implies either exasperation or alienation to me (these implications aren’t there when referring to one’s mother in talking to other persons).

  52. Thinking now, I believe my first exposure to aunt used for a family friend, rather than a relation or in-law, was literary—from A Wrinkle in TIme, after Meg, her father, and Calvin escape from the planet Camazotz:*

    “What should I call you, please?” Meg asked.

    “Well, now. First, try not to say any words for just a moment. Think within your own mind. Think of all the things you call people, different kinds of people.”

    While Meg though, the beast murmured to her gently. “No, mother is a special, a one-name; and a father you have here. Not just friend, nor teacher, nor brother, nor sister. What is acquaintance? What a funny, hard word. Aunt. Maybe. Yes, perhaps that will do. And you think of such odd words about me. Thing and monster! Monster, what a horrid sort of word. I really do not think I am a monster. Beast. That will do. Aunt Beast.”

    “Aunt Beast,” Meg murmured sleepily, and laughed.

    “Have I said something funny?” Aunt Beast asked in surprise. “Isn’t Aunt Beast all right?”

    Aunt Beast is lovely,” Meg said. “Please sing to me, Aunt Beast.”

    Based on my background, I found the use of aunt here extremely awkward when I first read the book (or when it was read to me; the first time, it could have been either).

    In response to the obvious sociolinguistic question: I do not recall what part of mid-century America Meg Murry’s family hails from; I don’t think Madeleine L’Engle made it particularly evident in A Wrinkle in TIme. (L’Engle herself was from New York City, although she lived part of her life in New England.) There might be more clues as to where on Earth the later books take place, especially A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but I have no desire to reread any of the sequels, especially not that one. (I do remember, however, that in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, adult Meg has a bit of trouble deciding how to address her mother-in-law—Calvin’s mother—and settles on “Mom,” which is what all her kids call her, although Meg thinks it sounds disrespectful coming from anybody but Calvin himself.)

    * Wayne Barlowe’s rendering of the alien in question is available here. Barlowe’s Aunt Beast looks much slicker and more sinuous that I personally imagined her.

  53. Andrej Bjelaković says

    @David Marjanović

    Just to clarify, what is wholly absent nowadays, addressing one’s mother in law as Mutter, or addressing one’s own mother as Mutti?

  54. PlasticPaddy says

    “Westdeutschland sagt Mama, Ostdeutschland sagt Mutti”
    But maybe this is only adults…

  55. David Marjanović says

    Just to clarify, what is wholly absent nowadays, addressing one’s mother in law as Mutter, or addressing one’s own mother as Mutti?

    I meant that the latter is absent in my generation, despite being the norm in the previous one. Evidently things are more complex; the article PlasticPaddy posted implies East Germany didn’t participate in that shift or imported it later, and it says one in 10 Germans above the age of 45 – unfortunately that’s the only time anyone’s age is mentioned – actually call their mothers Mutter.

    My sister has a mother-in-law now and calls her by her first name. I think the uncle and the aunt by marriage on the maternal side have copied Mutti from their spouses, but I don’t meet them often. That’s my complete sample of people addressing mothers-in-law in German.

  56. @Paddy: Thanks, that’s interesting. Unfortunately, my exposure to Eastern Germans is exclusively in professional settings or at after-work socialising, so I have no practical experience of how they address their mothers.
    On mothers-in-law, my samples indicate either first-name or Mama – that’s how my wife calls my mother, a state that took several years to come about.

  57. Andrej Bjelaković says

    Huh, interesting. All my German textbooks used Mutti! (This was back in the ’90s and early 2000s.)

  58. I could imagine that this is an inheritance from Socialist Yugoslavia, where I assume German text books were imported from or at least geared towards the GDR?

  59. Or just the usual conservatism of textbooks.

  60. Ben Tolley says

    My German textbooks in the UK in the mid 90s used Mutti as well, and I don’t think they were geared towards the GDR

  61. David Eddyshaw says

    I was under the impression that Angela Merkel was Mutti, but then, I suppose she is from the GDR-that-was.

  62. For me, Auntie XXXX, never Aunt XXXX.

    I think we used to call our uncles “Uncle” on occasion, although it was possibly not mainstream usage.

    We also used “Auntie YYYY” for the wife of a very close friend of my father’s (i.e., not an actual relative).

  63. I was under the impression that Angela Merkel was Mutti, but then, I suppose she is from the GDR-that-was.
    (1)That, and (2) many top politicians active during her time in office were of an age bracket that still may have used the word in their childhood even in the West, and (3) a bit of an old-fashioned 50s mother image was intended in the moniker.
    @Ben Tolley: that may then indeed be due to the conservative nature of text books mentioned by LH.
    BTW, there’s an easy test whether the text books were geared towards the GDR – what did they call a fried chicken? 😉

  64. J.W. Brewer says

    I definitely learned “Mutti” from my U.S. German textbooks at various points between ’79 and ’84. I do not have any clear memory of how the then-teenage boys in my summer ’82 West German host family addressed their mother, so I guess the question is whether if they had *not* called her Mutti that would have been sufficiently at variance with what I’d been primed to expect that I would affirmatively remember the alternative usage these 40 years later.

  65. David Eddyshaw says

    I, too, was taught “Mutti” at school. I did notice that the children in the German TV series “Dark” actually call their mothers “Mama”, but didn’t focus on the fact particularly, given all the mind screw going on passim.

  66. David Eddyshaw says

    I may also be old enough that “Mutti” was actually correct at the time.

  67. Same here on both counts.

  68. given all the mind screw going on passim
    I feel you; I watched it with my daughter and I frequently had to check with her who was who and did what in which time period. But it was quite entertaining.

  69. My grandparents having died before I and my siblings were past infancy, my mother took it upon herself to designate two older female friends “Granny [surname]”. I and my siblings were not fooled or impressed.

  70. 1. SFR Yugoslavia & DDR: I doubt german language educational material was from DDR. Yu stopped being a part of the Soviet block in 1948 and had diplomatic relations with both Germanies. If anything, relations were closer with BDR because of some 1 million yugoslav gastarbeiter living there and because of the hordes of West Germans holidaying on the Adriatic coast.

    2. “Son” part 1: In Croatian, it’s common, though maybe a bit old fashioned, for older relatives to address any younger male relative as ‘sine’ = son.

    3. “Son” part 2: In my part if Croatia, it’s not unheard of to address your child (male and female) as ‘sine’. So much so, that there’s a joke: “what’s the vocative of ‘kći’? ‘Sine’!”

    4. “No sir”, “yes mam”: Is it still a done thing in USA that children address their father as sir and their mother as mam?

  71. Totally by the by:

    The other day at a used book stall I found a slim German-language textbook published in the GDR with (rather incomplete) Bulgarian, Polish, Russian (I think) and Mongolian glosses. No publisher or date was given.

  72. @zyxt: Calling parents “sir” or “ma’am” seemed like a strictly Southern affectation when I was a kid forty years ago. Nobody* in the places I lived did it, and I don’t even really known how common it was in the South at that time; it may have been moribund below the Mason-Dixon Line as well. Certainly, I haven’t* heard it much from children in South Carolina in this century.

    * I don’t mean that children never call their parents “sir” or “ma’am.” However, I don’t think I’ve ever known any families where it was done as a matter of course, or even frequently.

  73. Little tiny kids where I came from would say “Mommy”. Older kids on up would say “Mom”. “Mama” and “Ma” were rarely if ever used. “Mother” also rare and would probably be sarcastic or argumentative. But we’d see the 3 later uses on TV or in movies and it might slip in now and then. I believe I thought of “Mother” as what high-tone East Coast people would say.

    I think it varied by families though. Stricter families might use “Mother” more, and not argumentatively.

  74. J.W. Brewer says

    This (as in Brett’s latest comment) finally brings the thread back round to the article referenced in hat’s original post. The white South, in Jim Crow times and before, was more overtly hierarchical and non-egalitarian in speech habits than other parts of the U.S. and was late to join the American tendency to be radically egalitarian in rhetoric if not in reality (where the venture-capital bajillionaire purports to be on an informal mutual-first-name basis with the minimum-wage janitor whose immigration status is probably irregular). This was, in olden days, the problem adverted to. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with “Aunt(ie) FIRSTNAME” as a respectful mode of address to older-than-yourself females in the community, as shown by the many other examples around the world adverted to above. The issue was that the Jim Crow South simultaneously believed in an age hierarchy and a race hierarchy. I think the college-town kids call this “intersectionality.” So well-brought-up white children were instructed to address black adults in a respectful fashion, the way that youngsters should address elders in a pre-Boomer context — but were simultaneously taught to use a *different* set of respectful conventions than they were to use (i.e. Sir and Ma’am etc. instead of the Aunt/Uncle convention) in addressing white adults, because of the simultaneously-existing racial hierarchy. So the black folks quite rightly found this system insulting because the inegalitarian racial hierarchy was baked into it, yet it remains the case that white people socialized into the system used the “Aunt/Uncle FIRSTNAME” approach to addressing black people (either adults when they were children or by extension fellow adults when they were grown) when they subjectively intended to be, by their own lights within the existing set of social norms, polite/respectful. Because when they *didn’t* intend to be polite/respectful when addressing black adults they certainly had less polite/respectful lexical options available to them which they were not always shy about using.

  75. Stricter families might use “Mother” more,

    Just not “she”.

  76. The white South, in Jim Crow times and before, was more overtly hierarchical and non-egalitarian in speech habits than other parts of the U.S. and was late to join the American tendency to be radically egalitarian in rhetoric

    Yes, I was taught in the ’50s by the Southern (Ozark) part of my family to use “sir” and “ma’am” with adults.

  77. J.W. Brewer says

    And the Ozarks (which had been largely Unionist during the Late Unpleasantness of 1861-65 and heavily Republican thereafter) tended to lack a significant local black population (because the initial settlers had been such po’ folks that they couldn’t afford to own slaves …), so they could perpetuate the Sir/Ma’am style of respectful discourse toward elders without necessarily needing to accompany it with explicit instruction in the *different* mode of subjectively-respectful address thought suitable for adults of color.

  78. PlasticPaddy says

    What I am missing here is the affective component in some usages by children. For example, an auntie or granny is someone who could tickle you or on to whose lap you could jump with the follow-on request to be read/told a story (well, maybe not so much Granny). I feel that this is a significant part of fictional creations like Aunt Jemima and Uncles Ben and Remus. Also maybe molly was reacting to having her affections forced…

  79. David Marjanović says

    I’ve met a Texan who used “Mother”, “Mom” and the first name seemingly at random.

  80. @zyxt: I know that Yugoslavia wasn’t part of the Soviet block, and I remember that Yugoslavian guest workers and Yugoslavian restaurants were a feature of Germany already when I grew up in the 70s. Assuming that the text books rom the 90s mentioned above were from the GDR was the best reason I could imagine for them using Mutti; the only other explanation would be that they hadn’t been updated for 40 years.

  81. Tomorrow’s (FTF) New York Times crossword comes down in favor of Auntie as a term of respect, with this clue:

    Term of address for many a respected elder

    As I was writing this, I was reminded that in Do the Right Thing the moral matriarch of the block where the story takes place, played by Ruby Dee, is nicknamed “Mother Sister.” Part of this is a stylistic decision Spike Lee made, to have many of the secondary African-American characters in the neighborhood are known only by nicknames: Da Mayor, Love Daddy, Smiley, Buggin Out, and (partially) Radio Raheem. “Mother Sister”‘s name may have been chosen to allude to “Auntie,” without using that name explicitly—either because it might be considered disrespectful, or simply because it was too cliche.

    However, it also may be a mistake to look for too much message in the naming and natures of these characters. Some of the background locals were allowed to ad lib most of their lines and behavior, and even the scripted ones are not necessarily consistent. Da Mayor is a drunken figure of fun through the vast majority of the film. He apparently gets his name from his constant presence on the block, hunting for ways to get more alcohol. Yet Mother Sister, who he appears to have a crush on even though she seemingly utterly detests him and his drunken antics, seems willing to start a romance with him after he saves a child from getting hit by passing car. To me, this seems to have more to do with him being played by Dee’s husband Ossie Davis than anything authentic about either character.

  82. “Mayor of the Block” types are not rare. They are the person who is usually out and sees everything, without coming off as nosy.

  83. Here growing up in more or less traditional setting (a village or in some cities a yard of an appartment block) you call adult women tyotya X or baba X and adult men dyadya X accordingly. Then you grow up. A woman in a small town may introduce herself to a younger neighbour or someone’s son : “call me tyotya X”.

    It is not this way for people you are formally introduced at workplace, it is not this way for children who, rather than to play with other children in the town, socialize in schools.

  84. Here are two different explorations of the “mayor of the block” archetype. I can’t say it is something I personally encountered, living, for example, in Boston.* Both those articles are primarily about New York individuals, but I imagine the phenomenon could happen in most any appropriately urban area.

    * Actually, where I lived in Charlestown, on the slope of Bunker Hill,** the neighborhood was split between the rather insular Irish-American locals*** and more recent arrivals, with very little interaction between them. For one of the blocks around there to have a “mayor,” that person would have had to have bridged the wide divide between the two communities.

    ** The Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place on the next hill over, Breed’s Hill. Nobody knows why the Patriots fortified Breed’s Hill instead of Bunker Hill, contrary to their orders, although it is not too surprising in that respect, since command and control over the army was still very weak at that very early stage of the Revolutionary War. The monument and museum are located at the actual battle site, atop Breed’s Hill.

    *** The long-term residents settled things amongst themselves. The clearest example of this was when, early one evening, a pregnant woman with a baseball bat emerged onto the street and, amidst a stream of curses, started smashing up the windshield of a parked car. The police arrived in short order, but the woman was gone by then, and when the police talked to a bunch of people who had congregated around the damaged vehicle, everybody claimed ignorance of who was responsible and why. However, after the cops left, a couple of representatives of the vandal’s family appeared and promised the owner that she would pay for the damage. There were people coming and going outside discussing the event well into the night. My wife and I had enough interaction with the locals (mainly through our landlord’s family) that we eventually heard fourth hand what had happened, although not in much detail. The pregnant lady with the bat had gone after what she thought was her boyfriend’s car, in the belief (right or wrong we were never close enough to find out) that he had been cheating on her. However, she had actually smashed up the wrong sedan, and her family were apparently mortified about the whole incident, although, since the owner of the damaged car was the scion of another longstanding Charlestown family, the whole matter was apparently taken care of without any further outside involvement.

  85. command and control over the army was still very weak at that very early stage of the Revolutionary War.

    Colonials were not used to “command and control” and deeply resented it when the Brits tried to enforce it during the Seven Years’ (“French and Indian”) War — that was one of the factors that made them start feeling distinctly different from their fellow countrymen across the water.

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