mon oncle
March 31, 2005 10:21 PM   Subscribe

Why are "aunt" and "uncle", emplyed in a nonfamilial sense, used as terms of endearment and honorifics in so many societies?
posted by deafmute to Society & Culture (17 answers total)
Response by poster: Where I come from, they don't spell "employed" with an o....
posted by deafmute at 10:56 PM on March 31, 2005

It's not specifically aunt and uncle. Granny, gramps, brother, sister, father, mother (those last two in dutch, at least, in the sense of old person - "vadertje" & "moedertje", but I guess in other languages as well).

My guess is we just want to indicate closeness and call these people the things they could be to us, were they family. Father and mother are likely less common because you can have lots of aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters but only one father and mother, biologically speaking.

I wouldn't know about the honorifics.
posted by Skyanth at 10:59 PM on March 31, 2005

In Spanish (regional to Spain), uncle ("tio") is used to refer casually to your buddy or even as a synonym for "dude", so hardly a universal honorific even.
posted by vacapinta at 11:05 PM on March 31, 2005

It's a sign of respect. It's also so your kids aren't going around talking to your close friends on a first name basis or having them call your friends by "Mr/Ms/Mrs".
posted by o0o0o at 11:07 PM on March 31, 2005

My upbringing in a Sri Lankan family (in Australia) has given me plenty of "aunts" and "uncles" to whom I'm quite clearly not related. For us, it's always been a way to combine respect and affection (bear in mind that the idea of extended family is pretty important in Sinhalese culture.) I really can't think of a more complex explanation than that - it was never "proper" to address someone from an older generation by their first name, and Mr and Mrs were just too formal. Actual aunts and uncles have specific titles depending upon which side of the family they're from and how old they are relative to your own mother or father. For example, my mother's younger brother has a different title from my father's older brother....

(on preview, I don't think I've been much help)
posted by bunglin jones at 11:21 PM on March 31, 2005

"Mother" (honorary) is for a close friend's mother who is also close to me, usually used only third person. "Aunt" (or uncle) is for a good friend of my parents or grandparents, both as an honor and as oOoOo states above. At least that's how it was in 60/70's Michigan.
posted by Goofyy at 11:22 PM on March 31, 2005

I spent last summer in a small town in Cyprus and there everyone called the old ladies (who wear all black, in perpetual mourning of their dead husbands) Yaya, or grandmother.

Speaking of friends of the parents, I assumed (without having been encouraged with terms like "uncle") that we were related to the family of a friend of my dad's, because we did the same kinds of things with them that we did with my actual cousins.
posted by rustcellar at 12:12 AM on April 1, 2005

In Japanese, too, a middle-aged stranger can be referred to as "ojisan" (uncle) or "obasan" (aunt). Younger folks get the terms for older brother/sister, and retirement-aged folks are, yes, grampa nd grandma. It's not a sign of familiarity or endearment, but rather a respectful (honorific as you say) way to refer to someone when you don't know their name. Why? Better than "Hey you middle aged person," isn't it? I, however, more often get called "gaijin-san."
posted by planetkyoto at 5:59 AM on April 1, 2005

Maybe "aunt" and "uncle" aren't the proper translations, but English doesn't have the right words so we use another one that only partially fits the meaning.
posted by smackfu at 6:30 AM on April 1, 2005

For my son, we refer to our best friends as "Aunt" and "Uncle" and when speaking of their children, use "nephew" and "niece". It's faster and easier to say that than "my best friends' child".

For us, there is the additional element of this family being part of our chosen family. None of us live near our biological families and we've had a long (10+ years) friendship which has been through a fair bit. Our best friends mean more to us than, frequently, our own siblings or extended families. It's the type of relationship where we know we can say "watch the kids while I take her to the hospital" and it's done, no questions, no issues. It's rare to find people in your life who are not just there for the emergencies; but are also there to help you tear out shrubbery, move from house to house, give you a night of uninterrupted adult time, laugh at your bad jokes, hold your hand through a miscarriage, fill your house with flowers on your birthday and listen, always listen, when you just need to vent.

It's for all these reasons and so many more that we use the familial terms to address each other.
posted by onhazier at 6:57 AM on April 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

It's sort of a way of indicating that someone is a freind so close as to be part of the family by default. Growing up, I referred to my grandfathers best freind as "Uncle Charlie," and my mom's college roommate as "Auntie Lima" (she's from Peru, long story).
posted by jonmc at 7:06 AM on April 1, 2005

Best answer: In English, using the term "aunt" or "uncle" to people who are not the siblings of you mother or father is a way of establishing fictive kin. As onhazier demonstrates, fictive kin can take on roles which are different from the roles of non-kin. In some societies, fictive kin roles are quite specific (think of the role of a godfather or mother), in North America among the white middle class, fictive kin roles are defined more by the individuals involved.

As several people have pointed out, in some societies kin terms are also general terms of address. In my experience, this is linked to social systems in which hierarchy is based on age, and younger people are expected to always show respect to older people. In these cases, calling a person by a kin name is respectful and convenient if you don't know their name.

Finally, an important point is that kinship systems and the terminology that describes them are not universal. So some people have actual "aunts" and "uncles" who we would not consider aunts and uncles. So in some societies, calling someone who we don't recognize as an aunt "aunt" is not a term of endearment, it's just appropriate.

So, the short answer to your question is that "we" (in the universal sense) call each other aunt and uncle to create and reinforce bonds of affection, to show respect and out of social custom, and because some of us have different aunts and uncles than others.

A really fantastic site to check out if you want to learn about some of the diversity of kinship systems is Brian Schwimmer's kinship tutorial.

Also you might find interesting The Families We Choose. I confess I haven't read it (it was recommended to me, but I haven't gotten to it yet), so I can't say how relevant you may find it. It's about kinship in gay and lesbian families.
posted by carmen at 8:01 AM on April 1, 2005

I can't speak for so many societies, but in my family, my kids aren't allowed to call adults by an unadorned first name. Since Mr/Ms/Mrs (Last Name) seems especially formal now, friends that are especially close to me can choose to be Aunt/Uncle (First Name) or Mr/Ms. (First Name) to my kids. The Aunt/Uncle thing is a signifier of my relationship with that adult- they are like a sibling to me, so they're treated like a sibling when it comes to honorifics from the kids.
posted by headspace at 8:34 AM on April 1, 2005

bunglin jones:

> For us, it's always been a way to combine respect and affection (bear in
> mind that the idea of extended family is pretty important in Sinhalese culture.)
> I really can't think of a more complex explanation than that - it was never
> "proper" to address someone from an older generation by their first name, and
> Mr and Mrs were just too formal.

Really interesting, from a cross-cultural point of view. This sort of thing is extremely common in my part of the world (deep south USA, specifically Georgia.) My father and his business partner were very close (had been childhood friends, went to school together, formed an architecture firm together out of college, etc.) I called said partner "Uncle Bill" for exactly the reasons you state: children just didn't call grown-ups by their first names, but "Mr. Beckett" would have been ridiculously formal for somebody who was family in all but blood.
posted by jfuller at 9:46 AM on April 1, 2005

A young child is most likely to be close to good friends of his parents. Good friends are like siblings: we say "he was like a brother to me" and so on. So your parents' good friends are like aunts and uncles.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:15 PM on April 1, 2005

As it relates to the way I was brought up, smackfu has it. In english, as far as I know, there are no equivalents for the names given to my blood relatives in chinese. There are very specific names for "mom's sister" or "grandpa's brother's wife". Everyone else not related to me were referred to as auntie, uncle, big brother/sister, little brother/sister, etc.

I remember this as a great cause of confusion for me in elementary school. How does a kid explain this to others without sounding crazy?
posted by mileena at 2:28 PM on April 1, 2005

Response by poster: Great answers, everyone. Thanks. I too called close friends of my parents "aunt" and "uncle" when I was little; I was just very interested to find it present in so many cultures. Fascinating.
posted by deafmute at 2:38 PM on April 1, 2005

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