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I know that there are six forms of this word, but "great-uncle" is most common ("great-aunt" has a similar graph). Why is this, if "grandfather" and "grandmother" are common?

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Of course, "great uncle" and "great aunt" are ambiguous, so Ngrams might not be accurate on those terms. –  Daniel Jul 16 '11 at 15:09
    
"Granduncle" may not be very commonly used, but it is a perfectly valid English word... and the answer to a trivia question I saw in GAMES Magazine years ago: what is the only English word to contain the sequence N-D-U-N? From the same quiz: what is the only word to contain three consecutive pairs of letters (i.e. X-X-Y-Y-Z-Z)? –  MT_Head Apr 25 '12 at 5:34
    
Bookkeeper! Or bookkeeping. I have heard some people finagle a word with four consecutive pairs, though - subbookkeeper. –  Daniel Apr 25 '12 at 10:02
    
I had not heard that one - and apparently neither had the editors of GAMES back in the 80s... –  MT_Head Apr 25 '12 at 16:43

1 Answer 1

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Both grand- and great- seem to be translating the French grand-, as in grand-oncle and so on. French uses grand- consistently for the upward direction, and petit- for the reverse, as in petit-fils (grandson). In Latin your great-uncle is patruus magnus if he is on your father's side, and avunculus magnus on your mother's side; magnus, like French grand, can mean both "big" and "important". The root of our problem is that there are two ways to receive that into English: grand via Anglo-Norman graunt, Old French grant; and the Germanic great.

It seems that grandsire and grandam were the earliest English uses (appearing in the 13th century) which are pretty obviously based on the French. On the other hand, great-uncle and grand-uncle are both attested from the 15th century:

his grete Uncle H. Cardinal of England (Rolls of Parliament V.438, 1438)

his graunt oncle Henry cardinalle of Englande (Book of Noblesse, 1475)

These are both referring to the same person - Cardinal Henry Beaufort, the great-uncle of Henry VI.

In modern times I think most people are familiar with the "rule" that grand- means a difference of two generations, and repetitions of great- can be used for longer distances. This would suggest grand-uncle as the preferred form but in fact, as your chart shows, great-uncle is more common. Perhaps what is going on is that both words are possible English forms of grand-oncle, but for some reason grand-uncle does not feel appropriate, leaving the way clear for great-uncle to become standard. They are both used, and have a long history - but one is more popular. Pure speculation:

  • If my grandfather is my father's father, then my grand-uncle should be my uncle's father. But that is my grandfather. So grand-uncle is confusing.

  • grand- is reserved for the direct line of descent, so it feels wrong to use it for people who are off to the side

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+1 for 'grand-uncle should be my uncle's father'. This is exactly why I prefer great-uncle. –  Marthaª Nov 4 '11 at 21:32
    
(Oh, and lordy, did I just have a severe moment of semantic satiation with "uncle".) –  Marthaª Nov 4 '11 at 21:33
    
In French, son-in-law/stepson is beau-fils: "beautiful son", daughter-in-law/stepdaughter is belle fille: "beautiful daughter". Father-in-law/stepfather is beau-père, mother-in-law/stepmother is belle-mère, and beau-frère and belle-sœur for brother- and sister-in-law. –  Hugo Nov 4 '11 at 22:33
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@Hugo: whereas in Hungarian, beautiful-mother and -father (szépanya, szépapa) are either great-great or great-great-great grandparents (definitions differ). –  JPmiaou Nov 5 '11 at 4:37

protected by RegDwigнt Jan 16 '13 at 17:05

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