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Gaffer and Avuncular

WORDS and their origins tend to be like Russian dolls – no sooner have you got below the surface than another version appears. Even when you scratch an apparently routine word, it will almost invariably reveal a fascinating story.

For example, this column often refers to the “pedigree” of words and phrases – where they originated, what were their ancestors, and how they have changed in form and meaning. Yet pedigree itself has an unlikely tale to tell. Literally, it means “foot of crane”, or “fee de grue” in the variety of French used in 15th century England.

Blame the genealogists. When they prepared charts to explain the complicated inter-relationships between current generations and their ancestors, they developed a few simple conventions to show who was descended from whom. Among those was a drawing which resembled a crane’s foot – a long vertical line with two small forks at the bottom.

The drawing indicated direct descent, and the “pea de grue” as it was known became anglicised to “pedigree.”

While on the subject of family trees, it is worth noting that the words for mother, father, son, brother etc, tend to be among those with the most ancient roots, having parallel forms in many languages throughout the world.

Mamma, dadda, pappa, and babba – or words very similar to them – occur internationally. These sounds are not exclusive to Indo-European languages but are found in remote and unrelated tongues on every continent.

The words are the first understandable noises that an infant makes and their meanings are generally attributed to mother, father, and baby itself – although not necessarily in that order.

It is only convention that encourages English-speaking children to call mother mamma, mommy, or mummy; father pappa, dadda, or daddy; and themselves babba or baby.

Another relative – uncle – is related to the Latin “avus” for ancestor. Its diminutive form “avunculus” was applied to a mother’s brother, and travelling into English via Old French it became the familiar “uncle.”

A person who behaves like an uncle is still described as “avuncular”, while one who appears to be a throw-back to very distant ancestors is dismissed as “atavistic” – from the Latin “atavus” for great-great-grandfather.

In the past, grandfather became “granfer” and eventually “gaffer”. Gaffer is still with us but the sense has now changed to mean a boss, or foreman. It has no reason to the once-popular South African expression which sounds similar but is now confined to the vocabulary of the AWB.

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