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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, February 18, 2011

Happy Kindred Day!

It's the beginning of a long weekend in some Canadian provinces, with Monday's holiday called "Family Day" here in Ontario and in Alberta. So, a good time to look at the surprising origin of the word “family”: the Latin word famulus (servant). From famulus came the word familia (a household of servants), and this is what “family” meant when it entered English in the 1400s.(When I was a teenager, a favourite reproach from my mother was “You treat this place like a hotel!”; had she but known, I was merely being a precocious etymologist.) It was not until surprisingly late, the mid-1600s, that the word came to mean a group of people related to one another. Before that, we used the Anglo-Saxon “kin” and “kindred”.


  1. Ooops ...

    I was pretty sure I had read about a connection between the word "femela" (or something like that, for "woman") and the word for "family" being connected ...

    Hmm ...

    And how would a Latin term dislodge an Anglo-Saxon one ?


  2. Hello, ET.
    Latin words dislodged a lot of Anglo-Saxon words after the Norman Conquest, through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, when it was very trendy to show off that one knew Latin. Some of the Anglo-Saxon words died altogether, but many of them, like "kin" in this case, survived to give English its particularly rich hoard of synonyms.

  3. OK, thank you!

    I was also wondering if "familia" and "femela" were related, as I thought to have once read.

  4. Hello, again,

    I have long wondered about some infinitive verbs in English which seem based on a (past) participle ... like "terminated", say ?

    I though that to be peculiar to English, but I'm looking at these Italian words "Il scientifico" (it might be "lo scientifico", as it starts with an "s"), or "la chimica", where the nouns seem to be based on adjectives ... Not that an adjective can't arise before the corresponding noun, but it still gives (me) a strange, "back formation" feel(ing).

    Could you comment on something like that in a future post, please ?

    Thanks again!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.