Gender Neutral Term for Aunt/Uncle
June 5, 2008 9:10 PM   Subscribe

Searching for a gender neutral term for Aunt/Uncle?

My partner is going to be an aunt for the first time (woohoo). We've been searching for a gender neutral name for her...without much luck. She would really like something that isn't just a term that someone made up, but rather one with at least a little history/meaning, for example a word that means both aunt and/or uncle in another language or something.

So far we've come up with Zii (Italian) and Oncles (French??)...but she'd like some more ideas...
posted by gleea to Writing & Language (53 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
first name salutation only?
posted by parmanparman at 9:17 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are separate words for aunt and uncle in French. Uncle is oncle, aunt is tante.
e.g. My uncle's name is Mark = Mon oncle s'appelle Mark
My aunt's name is Marie = Ma tante s'appelle Marie

There are also separate words in Italian (but they are closer). Zio = uncle, zia = aunt.

And they are gender specific in both languages i.e. mio zio Mark, and mia zia Marie.
Un oncle, une tante (one uncle, one aunt).
posted by KevCed at 9:24 PM on June 5, 2008

In a lot of South Pacific places, you'd just use 'Cousin' for any relative who isn't your mother, father or sibling.
posted by pompomtom at 9:35 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I was a little unclear. We read that, although in Italian there is zio and zia, zii is the plural form for a group of uncles and aunts. Likewise, we read online that oncles is the plural form for a group of uncles and aunts for French's onclos and onclas/tante.

Is that right? Do you think it would at all appropriate to designate oneself as "Zii Marie" or "Oncles Marie"?

It's important for my partner to find a gender-neutral name, as she identifies on the trans spectrum, and is not looking to be pigeon-holed as either "aunt" or "uncle."
posted by gleea at 9:36 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd use cousin. There's a long tradition in English of using cousin to mean "member of the same extended family"; we use it in my family when a relationship is too complicated to figure out.
posted by danb at 9:37 PM on June 5, 2008

How about "elder"? It does sound vaguely Mormon/LDS, though. Heh...

Junior, Elder Susie is here to play with you!

You could also use "san"... "Susie-san."
posted by KokuRyu at 9:44 PM on June 5, 2008

Your uncles and aunts are your zeroth cousins once removed (as are your nieces and nephews).
posted by Flunkie at 9:44 PM on June 5, 2008

The word you're looking for doesn't exist.
posted by oaf at 9:53 PM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Do you think it would at all appropriate to designate oneself as 'Zii Marie'"

It's certainly not inappropriate, but it is grammatically ridiculous.

It'd be like referring to your pet as "Flock Polly" instead of "Bird Polly".
posted by toomuchpete at 9:57 PM on June 5, 2008

I think it would be confusing for the youngsters to have an aunt with a foreign title. Then again I grew up calling my Italian grandparents Nonna and Nonno long before I knew what that meant. It was considered impolite in my family for children to refer to adults by their first names (without a title like aunt or uncle).

"Zii Marie" or "Oncles Marie" don't make much sense translated into English but I think they would fit your requirements. I think "aunt" would work since they'd want a traditional role in the child's life, irrespective of their sexual orientation/gender identity. I think a unique title just singles them out and makes them seem "different". I'm pretty dense with stuff like this so I'll just stick with my original point that "zii marie" would be like "aunts marie" (since, as i understand it the gender gets implied by the context).

It seems I'm overthinking this plate of beans.
posted by KevCed at 10:01 PM on June 5, 2008

It would NOT be confusing for kids, they accept whatever you tell them someone is called.

And really, a good name just sort of happens. Some people have a Ta-ta and some people have a Nonno and some people have whatever the kid decides to call that person. I called my grandparents Papa and Mammock. While some of these sound more gender neutral than others, eventually your partner and the child will work something out. When the kid is old enough to realize that not everyone has a "____" in their family, or begins to feel silly saying that term, they'll be old enough to talk about the real reason such a term was needed in the first place.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 10:06 PM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sounded to me like the OP wanted "meaning" rather than a unilaterally imposed title. To me, a unique title is begging for a "why is Zii Marie a zii, and all my other aunts are aunts?". "What's a zii? What's the tran spectrum?" and so on. Or maybe "zii" is perfect and I was just several times the RDA of annoying and my parents should be considered living saints.
posted by KevCed at 10:14 PM on June 5, 2008

I don't think it'd be confusing for kids at all.

When I grew up almost all of my aunts and uncles (I have a few) were to be referred to as such... but one pair didn't like that, and so we just called them by their first name. Not confusing at all.
posted by pompomtom at 10:17 PM on June 5, 2008

I agree with NOT HERMITOSIS-IST that you should let the little one make up a name or title to address your partner with, but one possible gender-neutral title your partner could use in describing the relationship is "godparent" or "fairy godparent" (if the former is too religious-sounding).
posted by espertus at 10:19 PM on June 5, 2008

How about Sippe, a german word for clan or extended family. Sure it is a term for a collective, not an individual, but it isn't as grammatically specific as zii, etc.
posted by necessitas at 10:26 PM on June 5, 2008

I think Oaf is right: you're not going to find what you want.

A pure term would be "Parent's sibling" but it wouldn't be used as a title in direct address. Kokoryu's suggestion of "san" is only halfway satisfying because while the Japanese may use -san when addressing aunts and uncles (and lots of other people) they'll also use a relationship term: obasan or ojisan. And anyway, those terms are used for any middle aged person who is at all familiar, not just family.

I think that for direct address the best you'll do is your given name, without any further adornment. For indirect reference, "parent's sibling" will sound stilted and affected, and everything else (i.e. words from other languages) will be even worse.

Like it or not, for all of human history, everywhere in the world, adult gender was obvious and important and unambiguous, and language terms used to refer to adults usually made a clear differentiation. Open acknowledgement of gender confusion is recent and rare, and language hasn't caught up. It may never do so.

My advice? Go with "aunt".
posted by Class Goat at 10:27 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Out of context, oncles definitely and zii probably appear to be "uncles" (I'm guessing the term for "aunts" in Italian is zie). That's probably not what you want, as it matches "aunt" in neither gender nor number.
posted by oaf at 10:39 PM on June 5, 2008

OK, I've got an actual English language term for this, which I'm not making up (backed by the Oxford English Dictionary). I don't think it's a particularly good choice for what you want (in fact, I think it would sound pretty cold), but:

Your relatives can be separated into two broad categories: Lineal relatives and collateral relatives.

Your lineal relatives are those that you are descended from, and those that are descended from you: your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, children, grandchildren, et cetera.

Your collateral relatives are your relatives who are not your lineal relatives: your siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, neices and nephews, et cetera.

A "collateral" is a collateral relative.

So, your partner could be (and again, I'm not saying this is a good choice, but hey) "Collateral Francine", or whatever her name is.
posted by Flunkie at 10:44 PM on June 5, 2008

By the way, in French, "my aunts" is most definitely "mes tantes".

It's possible that "my aunts and uncles" is "mes oncles", similarly to "they (all male)" = "ils", "they (all female)" = "elles", "they (mixed or general)" = "ils". I don't know. But "tante" definitely has its own cognate plural.
posted by Flunkie at 10:47 PM on June 5, 2008

From further perusal of the OED, I note that one of the definitions of "aunt" is "A nickname for a wicket-keeper in cricket."

This is clearly gender-neutral, since anyone can be a wicket-keeper; moreover, if anything, it probably leans male, due to the relative proportion of male and female wicket-keepers. This has some cancelling effect on the femaleness of the more familiar definition.

So, I suggest your partner tries playing a game of cricket, and volunteers to be the wicket-keeper, and thereafter goes by "aunt".

This has several advantages:
  • No hassles in explaining it, or in the kid wondering why no one else has one;
  • Gender-neutral, at least ostensibly, which may be enough to satisfy your partner's wishes;
  • When the kid would be old enough (if your partner were called "Zii Francine" or whatever) to actually wonder "Zii?", you'll have a cute little story to tell them.

posted by Flunkie at 11:02 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

My friend's nephews call her Ti-Ti, a nickname for Tia, which is aunt in Spanish. I suppose Ti-Ti could be gender non-specific, since Tia is aunt and Tio is uncle. (I actually don't know if Ti-Ti is gender non-specific, but I think it could be - Spanish speakers, speak up and tell me if I'm wrong!) So maybe something like that would work.
posted by bedhead at 11:10 PM on June 5, 2008


In your situation I think you kind of have to create a term. It may be hard to find an existing one that's appropriate.
Years ago, at the dinner table one night before we had kids, my mom informed us that when she was a grandmother, she wished to be called "grandy" instead of grandma or grandmother or whatever. My wife and I and other people who were present kind of chuckled and made fun of her a little, and our best friend, who was also at the table, said that if that was the case then instead of being "uncle" he wanted to be called "Undie." Laughs and underwear jokes all around. But 10 years later he's Undie Les to my 3 kids. And he's the favourite, fun uncle who they beg to have babysit.
He's also gay and a while ago he was worried about the kids, specifically my young son, being embarrassed to call him "Undie," when he's older, which is certainly a possibility for pre-teen boys but I said we can deal with that when and if it happens. But the jokey made-up term has stuck, to this day. That's who he is to them. And I kind of love it.
And yes, we call my mom Grandy.

Also, Auncle is indistinguishable from "Oncle" when you say it.
And you don't have to pretend you're French.
posted by chococat at 11:16 PM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

How do your in-laws feel about this search? The entire purpose of this enterprise is defeated if the parents instruct the child to use the word 'aunt'.

Incidentally, what is wrong with 'aunt'? I get the impression that it may be a ridiculous oversimplification in your eyes, but why inflict unnecessary confusion on the child?
posted by TypographicalError at 11:20 PM on June 5, 2008

I don't understand why she and her are acceptable but not aunt? You also indicate her name is Marie (though that may have been just an example) which is a female name (the male usage is exceedingly rare and most people have never come into contact with it as anything other than a female name)

IMHO the most appropriate and least confusing title would be 'cousin'.
posted by missmagenta at 11:34 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Esperanto (if I'm following correctly):
  • Uncle = onklo
  • Aunt = onklino
  • Uncles = onkloj
  • Aunts = onklinoj
  • Aunts and uncles = geonkloj
  • Aunt or uncle = geonklo
That's it, I'm going to sleep.
posted by Flunkie at 11:36 PM on June 5, 2008 [4 favorites]

how about "ankle"? it's a little cutesy, but not in a bad way, i think.
posted by judith at 11:46 PM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

There have been women in my family who didn't want to be a grandma so they went by "Nona," and my grandfather didn't want to be called great grandpa so his great grandkids called him "pop-pop." Fact is they just made those names up, really. Nona doesn't mean anything really, but it didn't matter to the kids where the names came from. I think kids *like* calling the adults they love by unique names, actually. It makes their relative more special than the other kids' relatives.

So I'd just make something up. As others have said, the perfect word really might not exist. Create your own and OWN it! :)
posted by miss lynnster at 11:49 PM on June 5, 2008

Seconding TypographicalError about what the parents of the children feel. I would have a really hard time referring to my siser as "Oncles" because to me that is just a male term, even though it may, in certain circumstances, mean aunts and uncles. It is like the generic "he" (in books and articles for example) that is said to include "she" as well - but it is still a male term.

I would have much less trouble with either cousin or a made-up name that sounded neutral and fun, instead of contrived. Or just use FirstName. I know many people who do not like to be called aunt/uncle and they all go by their first name to the child.
posted by davar at 11:49 PM on June 5, 2008

My nieces and nephews (all eleven of them) call me "Steve".

In the same way I call my brothers and sisters by their given names, not "Brother" or "Sister". I've never felt that someone else having sex gave me any reason to claim a title, especially when I have several perfectly good given names to use. I've never met someone who has had an even marginally negative reaction to this.

However, if you don't want to use your common name and would rather have somethign attention getting, I suggest "Grand Sibling". It's clear and to the point without needlessly relying on foreign languages for obfuscation.
posted by Ookseer at 12:19 AM on June 6, 2008

At the risk of being politically incorrect or something... why can't the kid have two aunts?
posted by rokusan at 1:46 AM on June 6, 2008

Me, if I really wanted a gender neutral joining of the two, would go by the name of Undie Kerasia. There are the two letters of uncle, the two letters of auntie and a totally strange d in the middle. My nieces and nephews would love to use the nickname for underpants as part of my title (and it would accurately represent my irreverence). By the time they realised how pretentious I was being, owning a title just used for me and not my co-aunts and uncles, they'd be old enough to call me by my first name solo.

What are you trying to represent by finding this title?
posted by Kerasia at 1:58 AM on June 6, 2008

Here is a french-speaking confirming that in french "oncle" is male. By the way "tante" has a slang meaning for male homosexuals.
posted by Baud at 2:53 AM on June 6, 2008

At the risk of being politically incorrect or something... why can't the kid have two aunts?

Kids have as many aunts as as its parents have sisters and sister-in-laws (and brother/sisters female partners). Where is the political incorrectness?
posted by missmagenta at 3:33 AM on June 6, 2008

That was exactly my question, missmagenta.
posted by rokusan at 4:37 AM on June 6, 2008

That was exactly my question, missmagenta.

Who said the kid can't have 2 (or more) aunts? The OP's partner doesn't want to be called aunt.
posted by missmagenta at 5:07 AM on June 6, 2008

Cousin was named up the thread a ways, and its actually a pretty good choice that has a long, long tradition in English (ie: in England) usage as a term for any close relative who is not a sibling or parent, regardless of actual blood relationship.

That's what I would recommend.
posted by anastasiav at 5:25 AM on June 6, 2008

The problem, as I understand it, is that the OP's partner doesn't identify as either specifically male or female and therefore doesn't want a gender specific title, not that the OP will be the aunt therefore the partner needs a different title, but as I mentioned earlier, it seems contradictory to be ok with gender specific pronouns but not gender specific family titles. Unfortunately the english language just isn't adequate for gender non-specific individuals, you're one or the other, you cant be both or neither because we don't have the words for it.
posted by missmagenta at 5:26 AM on June 6, 2008

Will your partner also be coming up with an equally gender neutral title to convey her relation to her brother/sister? If she doesn't, she'll be defined by that gender-specific designation. For instance:

Kid: How am I related to Undie/Ankle/Zii/Oncles Marie?
Parents: She is mom's/dad's sister
Kid: Oh, she's my Aunt
posted by necessitas at 5:46 AM on June 6, 2008

In the region of India where my parents are from, your maternal aunts who are older than your mother, are called Pedhamma (their husbands are Pedhappa, pedha means bigger, appa father). Younger sisters of your mother are called Pinnamma or Chitthamma. My mother is the youngest girl in her family. My cousins tend to shorten the title and call her Pinny or Chithy. Would that shortened version be ok?

Maternal uncles are called "mama" which wouldn't work here in the US, their wives are called aunty which also wouldn't work.

(FYI: Paternal siblings are switched, uncles and their wives are pedhappas, etc. -- weird and confusing I know; I only figured it out a few years ago).
posted by bluefly at 5:57 AM on June 6, 2008

I vote for FirstName (or special kids-only nickname), or MadeUpTitle FirstName, or Cousin FirstName, in that order of preference.

Like a lot of people here, as a child I had relatives who were called by their first names (or nicknames, in some cases), relatives who were called traditional titles like Aunt So-and-so, and relatives who had made-up or foreign titles. And it wasn't confusing at all. That's just what they were called, no big deal. I had friends who called their fathers "Dad," others who used first names, and others who had to call their father "Sir" or "Mr So-and-so." And that wasn't confusing either. Kids just accept these naming things as a given -- they will question it at some point, and maybe rebel at age-appropriate moments, but they aren't confused by it.

Kids do really well with things like Uncle Frank and Uncle Steve being a couple, or Aunt Sally not having an Uncle in the house, or whatever. These are big issues for the adults, but my experience is that kids just accept it as part of their world, albeit with a lot of painfully direct questioning at various points. The "trans-spectrum" thing will be translated, and re-translated, and re-translated again, by the kids in ways that will make sense to them at the time, but the person's title won't be the part they find confusing.
posted by Forktine at 6:31 AM on June 6, 2008

My trans aunt called herself Aunt Firstname. I also don't think I ever once questioned why I had two aunts and no uncles in one house.
posted by avocet at 6:58 AM on June 6, 2008

I agree that the most natural solution would likely be to treat this as a Nona/Poppy/Gemma/whatever you call your grandparents situation and make something up, instead of borrowing a word like "oncles" that sounds close to "uncle" in English.

It needn't be grammatical, IMO. There's a nice bit of significance to making zie into a title, i.e. Zie-Marie, is that it is itself a gender-neutral pronoun, plus it's close to the Italian "aunt." Though "Zia" is probably easier to say/understand.

If pressed for an explanation, the child will understand that this person is their "aunt," the same way that I knew that my pop-pop was my "grandfather" -- though I giggle to even think of calling my grandfather "grandfather."
posted by desuetude at 6:58 AM on June 6, 2008

This isn't a thread/debate about why a trans person wants to be called something, it's a question about finding a gender neutral name. There are very personal reasons for wanting to be identified a certain way. I second, or third, coming up with a new term.

Kids will call your partner anything their parents tell them to. They have no idea what is the "norm" until someone else tells them.

I tend to like titi, but mostly because I've heard it before. Good luck!!!
posted by Sophie1 at 7:05 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go with "cousin," since (as others have indicated) the word has a long history of meaning simply "relative" (though it is sort of awkward to use the word as direct address in this sense).

Also, Flunkie, my understanding of Esperanto is that using the ge- prefix with a singular noun is incorrect (or at least questionable). Wikipedia has a good overview of the situation.
posted by aparrish at 7:25 AM on June 6, 2008

I'd create a gender-neutral term, like Opie or Popo or Nonnie. Gender ambiguity is not well-understood at this time, and trying to teach it to a child explicitly may not be helpful. But a gender-neutral name, with affectionate connotations, may indirectly show the child that there are lots of ways to be a person in your family, and Opie Terry is one of the many family members who love the child. Whatever you use will sound awkward until you use it a bunch and forget about it. I grew up with Southern Aunts and New England Aunts, where Aunt is pronounced differently according to region.
posted by theora55 at 7:25 AM on June 6, 2008

In the Thai language, the polite term of address for an aunt or uncle who is older than your parents is "Ah-[name]". For an aunt or uncle younger than your parents, it's "Na-[name]". It's gender-neutral, short, and sounds good.
posted by statolith at 7:34 AM on June 6, 2008

While I agree the term "cousin" best describes the familial relationship in gender neutral terms, calling her "Cousin" or "Cousin Marie" as a proper name is a little weak. I've also heard a child call an older friend of the family (not even a relative) as "Ti-ti". It's a nice nickname and certainly can refer to Tio-Tia in Italian.

My niece calls my sister "Ya-ya" since the Aunt Julia was initially too difficult. If, for instance, her name is Marie then perhaps you could call her "Ri-Ri".
posted by yeti at 7:53 AM on June 6, 2008

3rding Ti-Ti. It's cute and mirrors other terms of (Nana, Pop-pop, etc.) Plus, its etymology is obvious enough for anyone who's got an interest in language. You could try similar constructions like Zee-Zee, but Ti-Ti is easier for children to pronounce.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:15 AM on June 6, 2008

My kids have an Ice Weasel Anne (my sister) and an Ice Weasle Rebecca (her wife), also known as Anne Weasel and Rebecca Weasel, or the Ice Weasels.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:33 AM on June 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Also, Flunkie, my understanding of Esperanto is that using the ge- prefix with a singular noun is incorrect (or at least questionable).
The information I was operating off of basically said something like "this is not official, standard, Esperanto, but lots of people do it anyway."

And hey, I'm firmly in the descriptivist camp, even when it comes to an (attempt at an) explicitly prescriptivist language.
posted by Flunkie at 4:53 PM on June 6, 2008

If you can't dig up a language that has a single term for an aunt or uncle (and I'm no help on that, I don't know enough languages!), maybe you could go with a general term for kin/family in another language? I've been Googling and can't come up with anything, but I'm pretty sure I've heard of languages/cultures that do this.

Other than that, maybe play off the gender-neutral term sibling-- aka MamaSib/PapaSib (depending on whether it's your partner's sister or brother having the kid)? I know she doesn't want a made up term though. Or just go by her first name...
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:35 PM on June 6, 2008

What about Admiral?
posted by parmanparman at 10:58 PM on June 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's a little bit made up... but what about Kin Partnername?

I'd quite like to be Kin Taff.
posted by taff at 3:15 AM on June 7, 2008

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