Here’s a weird one for the “you learn something new everyday files”.
Today I was asked if there was a feminine counterpart for the English term avuncular which is derived from Latin avunculus ‘maternal uncle’.
I should note that although avuncular technically means “uncle-like”, the usage has expanded to mean any older kindly gentleman (like your nicer uncles). For instance Hollywood.com describes actor Gordon Jump (the original Maytag Man and the kindly if befuddled boss at WKRP in Cincinnati as an “avuncular television actor”
The original question was from a gender studies professor, so I assume her intention to provide a similarly positive role-model for older women (I’m thinking Aunt Bea from Andy Griffith here).
Well, most of the linguists said they hadn’t heard of one…but surprise there really is one! The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does list materteral “aunt-like” from Latin matertera ‘maternal aunt’.
Now the interesting question was – does anyone really use this term (i.e. is this a “real word”?). As you may guess, most Google searches for this term give you a list of word trivia sites, so it’s certainly not common. I know I never saw this on my SAT vocabulary terms and even the OED classifies this as “humourous”.
What I think is interesting is that someone went to the trouble to coin this little sweetie. In some sense, if you are exposed to enough Greco-Roman roots, you can start making new combinations up (and yes some people find this fun). For instance, I’m waiting for the new archaeological field of paleotechnology (extracting evidence from old Apple II computers) to be invented in future decades. There is a little sub-grammar just for these terms embedded into English grammar. I’m not sure what that means, but it sure is interesting.
I compare this to bootylicious – no one had heard of this until Beyoncé sang it, but we all knew what it meant because it combines “booty” with part of “delicious.” Instant word creation!
I think the same is true with materteral. It may not be in common usage now, but it has been coined and it has a basic meaning which can be reconstructed from its parts. So it is a word (or maybe a potential word). I did this send this along as a “word”, because even if you went to the trouble of making a Latinate counterpart, you would concoct something much like this. Maybe our instructor will create a new field of “materteral” studies.
And oddly enough – I have seen this being used in a real sentence from a British aunt’s blog (it’s a new word for her, but why not?)
The next few weeks are to be consumed by materteral activities. Alexander is coming to Suffolk this weekend and then the following weekend we are going to Hampshire to see him get Christened.
Sounds like she will be having fun with her nephew.