Word Fugitives

The July/August edition of this page sought words for three kinds of human relationships, including that between a bride's parents and her groom's. Over the centuries English has assimilated words from dozens of languages, a number of which do have words for this relationship—but English has yet to borrow or invent any such term.

More than a few readers suggested that we turn to Yiddish for help. Herb Zweig, of Woodland Hills, California, wrote, "See Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish. Machetayneste (the ch is guttural) means the mother of your child's spouse; machuten means the father of your child's spouse; and machetunim means the extended family of your spouse, so it describes these relationships from the children's point of view. Rosten tells an old joke: Why did Adam and Eve live so long? Because they had no machetunim."

Other people invoked other languages. Sally Sordinas, of Corfu, Greece, wrote, "My Greek son-in-law's mother calls me symbethèra." Roberta Kedzierski, of Milan, Italy, wrote, "There is a word in Italian: consuoceri." Several people wrote to say that in Spanish the term is consuegros. Note, however, the masculine o preceding the plural s. Barry Hammel, of Santa Ana, Costa Rica, warned, "In these days of gender sensibility, using just the male term for both (as in Spanish) is a no-no. Even in Spanish one occasionally sees written, among the e-mail crowd, such things as compañer@s to replace compañeros y compañeras."

Dan Moerman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, submitted a veritable treatise about terminology used in his profession, including the following: "Consanguineal, or blood, relatives are all those people with whom you share an ancestor. Affinal relatives, or in-laws, are all your relatives by marriage. For the parents of the bride and groom, affines is a perfectly acceptable term."

And Ernie Joaquin, of DeKalb, Illinois, wrote, "In the Philippines the Tagalog term for the relationship between parents of bride and groom is magbalae. They call one another, or they are called, balae." Admittedly, no more than other readers' suggestions do these terms seem poised to enter the American English mainstream—though Tagalog has brought us such words as ylang-ylang and boondocks. Nonetheless, for their exoticism they earn Joaquin top honors.

Also sought was a word for aunts and uncles collectively, together with one for nieces and nephews. For "nieces and nephews" various readers submitted danglings, kidlings, subsiblings, sublings, sibsprings, and niblings. Among them was Susan E. Hodge, of Teaneck, New Jersey, who explained that among other things, she teaches genetic counseling, and when she does, she uses the terms niblings and auncles.

Curious about the idea that these words might actually be current scientific terminology, I asked Hodge, who turns out to be a professor of psychiatry and biostatistics at Columbia University, if she might tell me more about them. She replied, "I contacted half a dozen or more senior geneticists/genetic counselors for you. To my surprise, only one of them had heard the word nibling before, and she did not know where she had heard it. One of my contacts sent out an inquiry on a genetic counselors' listserv. She got lots of responses, and none of them had heard of nibling. But one respondent had heard the term auncle for 'aunt or uncle.' Interestingly, there is now a Heisenberg effect in play. Several of my respondents wrote back, 'Gee, Sue, I've never heard that word before, but it's a great word and I think I'll start using it.'" Thus, not so much for originality as for rigor, diligence, and influence on the real world, Hodge takes top honors here.

Now MIKE LEWIECKI, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, writes, "We all encounter people in cars, airports, and shopping centers who seem to have a cell phone glued to one of their ears. I would like to have a word to describe these people."

And RICHARD SIEGELMAN, of East Norwich, New York, writes, "We need a word to say to people who have just coughed. Coughing probably leads to death more often than sneezing does, but it is only sneezers who get wished good health (gesundheit) and blessed by God (God bless you). This is just not fair! Coughers deserve hearing comparable words or phrases of sympathy!"

Send words that meet Mike Lewiecki's or Richard Siegelman's needs to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or visit the Word Fugitives page on our Web site, at www.theatlantic.com/fugitives. Submissions must be received by December 31. Use the same addresses to submit word fugitives that you'd like The Atlantic's help in finding. Letters become the property of Word Fugitives and may be edited.

Readers whose queries are published and those whose words are singled out for top honors will each receive, with our thanks, a selection of recent autographed books by
Atlantic authors. The next installment's correspondents will be sent I Want That!, by Thomas Hine; Afterglow, by Francis Davis; and All Is Vanity, by Christina Schwarz.