While doing a smattering of free freelance editing for a friend the other day, I discovered something hitherto unrecognized to me, hypervigilant and hyperobservant reader though I am. My discovery? Why, that in English there isn’t a collective word for nieces and nephews.
Brothers and sisters are siblings, sons and daughters are children, mothers and fathers are parents, husbands and wives are spouses, cousins are– well– cousins, but there’s no neat term for nieces and nephews. Not for uncles and aunts either, I soon also realized. Heck, even dogs and cats are pets.
Firing up the trusty array of dub-dub-dub search engines, I found that my observation was far from unprecedented. It’s apparently a well-known shortcoming in our otherwise overabundant language. Maybe I wasn’t aware of it because I’ve spent relatively little time thinking about my relatives. Who knows? It seems many people have tried to address the omission; in the Urban Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary there are multiple submissions of the word ‘niblings,’ or more rarely, ‘neblings,’ designed to fulfill the need. Neither appeals to me. The former sounds as if it would be more appropriate for describing the bits stuck between your teeth after eating corn on the cob, the latter I imagine to be a term for young birds that have fallen out of the nest and struck the earth, with unpleasant consequences.
Over at AskOxford, the esteemed lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary responded to a query on the subject thusly:
No, though it would be very useful. In fact nephew used to be used regardless of sex, but this usage is long extinct. Older use of the word cousin for a range of blood relations would have encompassed nephews and nieces, but no specific term is now available.
They have nothing specific to say on the topic of aunts plus uncles; presumably the older use of cousins applies. Searching the web once more, I again found a dearth of satisfying options. Neville Goodman, writing a short opinion piece in the medical periodical The British Journal of General Practice, shedding light on the etymology of ‘niblings’ as well, proffers:
The word sibling comes from Old English, and just means related by blood. I suggest taking the parental ‘p’ to replace the ‘s’, so aunts and uncles are ‘piblings’. Following the pattern, nephews and nieces become ‘niblings’, a nice word that describes what they do to their piblings’ bank balances at Christmas and birthdays.
Though as you know I agree with the need for a good word, ‘piblings’ falls far short of the mark as it sounds too close to piddling,which has the unsavory definitions of unimportant or trifling, and the slang for urinating (and by extention, wasting time). Here I also realized that too few doctors have a good sense of humor; piddling indeed!
Some good has come from my researches. Piddling is an excellent double-entendre descriptor for my blog. It’s both unimportant and a waste of time.