The Feminine Equivalent of Avuncular

OED definition of avuncular

Over the past six weeks I’ve taken on the challenge to write a blog post each week that incorporates Valerie Khoo’s ‘Word of the Week’ from the podcast So You Want to Be A Writer. It’s been a great way to start exploring my inner blogger, and so far I’ve striven to incorporate the word as unobtrusively as possible. This week however, I’ve been unable to move past my fixation with the gender bias inherent in Valerie’s chosen word. So here we go—some thoughts about the word avuncular.

Disclaimer—I’m not a linguist or lexicographer, and my formal study of culture theory has been at the glossing-over end of the spectrum. Still, as a woman who loves words, has worked in male dominated industries, and has come across her fair share of kindly-meant misogynistic attitude, I’m a staunch advocate of exploring what gendered words reveal about society’s values and preoccupations, and identifying opportunities to ‘take the dic out of dictionary’.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition of avuncular is “maternal uncle…Of, pertaining to, or resembling an uncle”. Furthermore, avunculate is an anthropological term used to describe “the special relationship in some societies between a maternal uncle and his sister’s son.” So far, so good. I can see how the concept of avunculate might have value. Growing up I watched my testosterone driven brother struggle with being the only male in an all-female, single-parent household. If my mother had had a brother (she doesn’t) who was a good bloke, a bit of avuncular role modelling could have saved us all many tears.

So what happens when the genders in this scenario are reversed? A father—a single parent—has a tribe of sons and a sole daughter who is struggling with what it means to be female. Luckily the father also has a sister who strikes up a nurturing, mentoring relationship relationship with the daughter. How would we describe this relationship?

Er … *opens browser – googles ‘feminine equivalent of avuncular’*

OED definition of materteral

Turns out that the feminine equivalent of avuncular is materteral**—a word so rarely used that it doesn’t even make it into the Shorter OED (I checked). The definition above is from the OED Online.***

So why has avuncular stuck over time, and materteral never got off the ground apart from that brief spate of ‘humorous’ references quoted in the OED? One reason might be that materteral doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Avuncular is way easier to say. Although it does sound an awful lot like unctuous. (I’ll come back to that…) And then of course there’s the patriarchy.

The Encyclopaedia Brittanica tells me that avunculate, as a relationship, is typically meaningful in matrilineal societies, where descent is traced through the female line—blood taking care of those who have proven blood ties. It’s potentially a very woman-centric thing, maybe even a nurturing thing, and it has overtones of initiating the next generation into adult responsibilities. That’s not our society, though. Our mainstream society is predominately patrilineal, has scant frame of reference for non-commercial nurturing relationships beyond the nuclear family, and is suspicious of talk of initiation. In a way it’s a wonder that avuncular hasn’t been chucked out with materteral.

Yet avuncular is alive, if not exactly kicking. For me it conjures up the smell of wool cardigan impregnated with stale camphor, a complexion challenged by age and a fondness for cheap whisky, a comfy recliner seat covered in faux leather, a predilection for reciting Rudyard Kipling poems—and a tendency to call girls and young women ‘chicky’.

Yep, that’s unctuous.

But hang on. Didn’t Valerie explicitly say of avuncular“Please note it’s not some kind of ‘creepy uncle’ reference.” That’s an interesting qualification. It acknowledges that the word ‘uncle’ isn’t always thought of in a positive way. This hasn’t always been the case. When I was a child in country Victoria in the late 60s and 70s, every close family friend who was male had his first name prefaced by ‘Uncle’ (likewise, every close female family friend was ‘Aunty’). Uncle was a trusting honorific. Since then, things have changed. Abuses have been exposed, societal innocence lost. In the words of my partner, we now have a “deep seated, almost hysterical distrust of male nurturing relationships”.

A few years ago Magda Knight of Mookychick wrote briefly about avuncular, posing the question, “How, then, may we traditionally refer to the stalwart women who want to revolutionise the minds of their nieces and nephews then retreat to the safety of gin-sozzled strip-rummy in Monaco?”  She proffered two choices—we (women) either “make materteral a thing”, or we “claim avuncular”. The post was tongue-in-cheek, and I’m pretty sure we aren’t expected us to take these options seriously. Materteral is an absurd word with no weight, and avuncular carries baggage that few women would yearn to lay claim to. And possibly—just possibly—avuncular is already heading the same direction as materteral in terms of frequency of use. If that happens, what will be the loss?

To me, the main value in the various meanings attributed to avuncular is the notion of kindly, generous support offered to those who are younger or less experienced. In the workplace, or in the learning of any skill or discipline, a good word for a person who offers this is mentor. Mentor is gender neutral and it’s a word we already use. In flavour it’s less nurturing than avuncular, but I suspect that has more to do with our lack of sophistication when considering the possibilities of mentorship than with the actual word.

Things become more difficult however when looking at those people, other than parents, who form part of that village that raises a child. How do we describe these people’s relationship with our children? Do we need to? I’m not sure what I think about this. It’s something I’d like to mull over some more.

Finally, having spent all this time musing about avuncular, I have one last thing to offer—if you’d like to take a stab at pronouncing materteral, here’s a short youtube clip that shows you how.

Thanks to Valerie for this week’s word. I’ve enjoyed writing about it.


**Two other possibilities are materterine and auntly

***I can access the OED online for free using my State Library of Victoria membership. Hooray! Support public libraries!!!

For Love of Words

One  of my absolute joys as a parent has been my ongoing, intimate engagement with my child’s acquisition of language. I think most parents would understand this at some level. From the moment a child is born, the dialogue begins. The baby cries and rubs it’s eyes, and we respond. In those early months it’s all about meeting the new little person’s needs, introducing them to the world around them, and prompting them to interact.  Mum. Dad. Milk. Peek-a-boo! And then the surprises start.

When my daughter was around 6 months old, I was holding her against my chest in a sling, walking around the lounge room, rocking her to music—when suddenly she kissed my breast, and looked up at me, beaming. I knew she wasn’t hungry, and at first I took the kiss as a random display of affection (for the food source, not me as whole!) Then she did it again, and again, and suddenly I realised—the music on the CD player was Louis Armstrong singing Kiss of Fire, and my baby was kissing me every time Louis sang kiss. Knock me down with a feather.

baby sign for more
More, more, more, more!!!

It was around this time that I came across the idea of baby sign language. In light of the kiss experience, baby signing made absolute sense. I chose a few signs to work with, but the only one that my baby took to was the sign for more. Because—parenting 101—it’s all about motivation. Which is okay because motivation takes all kinds of forms, one of which is communicating life essentials.

Delight is a life essential. When my daughter was 7 months old, I made the saddening decision to withdraw from a Masters course that I’d deferred from a few months before she was born. I knew that I couldn’t give my child the attention she deserved if my head was immersed in the labyrinthine by-ways of cultural theory, and yet…  As my baby and I trammed down Swanston Street to my exit interview with the Faculty, we looked at the Christmas decorations. “Star,” I said to her, repeatedly, as I pointed to massive sparkly stars hanging from street lights. She rolled this around her little head, and then the game began. “Da!” she said, pointing to the next lot of stars. We were off. Da! Da! Da! All the way to the university and back again. Yes, I had made the right choice. I had stars in my eyes.

The milestones since then have been many and varied, but some stand out more than others. Like the moment my daughter suddenly realised colour as a concept. She was around 18 months old, and still not much of a talker. Her favourite word at the time was moa which quite handily acted as signifier for her three primary obsessions of lawn mower, mailbox, and more (back to motivation…) Anyway, she rushed up to me, purple crayon clutched in hand, purple dress in the other, her face ablaze with excitement. She shook the crayon and dress at me meaningfully. Look Mummy. Look!!!! She persisted despite my blank incomprehension, and then… Oh my. We went to the crayon box. “Which one is red?” I asked. She pointed to red. “Green?” She pointed to green. Orange, blue, brown, yellow ochre… (we’re a bit arty at our place) She pointed to them all. She was exploding with accomplishment. She couldn’t say the words, but because the words existed she could receive and hold this amazing, wonderful concept, and she could find a way to share her understanding.

There are some concepts of course that the English language has no adequate word for. Love of a parent for a child is one of those concepts. If I want to convey to you how I love my child, I need to use not one, but many words, stringing them together to tell you the story of how our love unfolds and of how it changes me. I’ve been a lover of words for as long as I remember, but parenting has enriched my understanding of what is means to be a logophile. Love—deep love—is not a solitary thing. Such love is the recognition of self in other, and it motivates us to search for ways to encapsulate and share that which matters. Sometimes the way lies in a gesture—a touch on the arm or a hug. More often than not though, the way is through words. Thank you, words.