Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Relatively Speaking, a Paucity of Words

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Relatively Speaking, a Paucity of Words

Article excerpt

"Ma-ma" or "Da-da" is often the first word a child speaks.

But once the child grows up to be a full-service speaker of English, he or she may notice that not all relationships are as easy to identify as "Mommy" and "Daddy."

There are some gaps in our vocabulary of relationships - instances where we don't have a really satisfying term to connect A to B.

"Lexical gaps" is a term for these missing words, or rather for the spaces in the language that their absence leaves unfilled.

One such gap is the need for a better term than "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" for those occasions when the "friends" in question are no longer otherwise referred to as "boys" or "girls."

A good term for adult offspring is another lexical gap. Parents commonly speak of their sons and daughters as "our children" when they are indeed children. But once they're grown, they don't refer to them as "our adults." Instead, we get absurdities such as, "She has named her three children as executors of her estate."

I ran across another one of these the other day while reviewing a commentary proposing, in effect, a new guest-worker program for immigrants to the United States. Once their immigration status was clarified and they were out of the shadows, the piece said, they would be free to make family visits across the borders. But to say, "Families would be able to visit one another," sounded too much like, "The Smiths would be able to visit the Browns."

What we really needed was a way to describe Jose going back to the village to see Maria and the kids, or maybe Jose and Maria and the kids going back home to visit the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I ended up concluding that "relatives" was probably the best option. But it's not a very richly emotive word, is it? Compare and contrast the phrases "family visit" and "visiting relatives." Which has the warmer vibe?

English has plenty of old-fashioned synonyms for family, especially in the broader sense: clan, tribe, even "people," as in, "Their people came over from Ireland during the 19th century. …

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