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We often use "Uncle" to refer to a paternalistic figure or close family friend who isn't actually related by blood or marriage. For example, I'm a godfather to the young children of a family friend, and I'm usually introduced as "Uncle John" to the kids at birthdays or holiday gatherings.

It struck me that this is rather arbitrary.

  • Why isn't it, say, "Brother John" or "Grandpa John" or "Cousin John" or any other similar term?

  • Does this have any origins in "Uncle Sam", the national personification commonly used in America? That's the only connection I could think of.

  • Is this sort of thing common in other languages/cultures, too?

  • No it is extensively used in Britain and in many other countries. The Chinese and Japanese do it all time. In fact out East it is widely used for all sorts of people. It is a way of honoring the elderly. When I worked in Japan the guys in the office used to call the old security guard who looked after the office 'ojisan', which means 'uncle'. – WS2 Mar 16 '14 at 21:06
  • Even if Shakespeare day it was already a cliche, ie nuncle for "mine uncle" – mgb Mar 16 '14 at 21:07
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    @WS2 "Out" East? Oh, the condescension :-) BTW John doesn't look that old! – andy256 Mar 16 '14 at 22:11
  • @andy256 ~ it is not the age itself, it is the age difference - at least in Singapore usage. Teenagers call me 'uncle', but people of my generation don't. There is a generic element to the usage too. Taxis are driven by the 'taxi uncle' regardless of age or age difference. Though to be honest, I have never seen a young taxi driver. – Roaring Fish Jan 8 '15 at 11:41
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'Uncle' is most appropriate since you are a male of the same generation as the kids parents.

Using family terms for non-family members is not done so regularly in English as other languages but 'Grandfather' is occasionally used to address any old man. 'Sister' and 'Bro(ther)' can be used for similarly aged people. 'Son' can be used to address any boy.

In Korean, where using someone's name directly is considered rude, the terms for "younger/older brother/sister" etc. are routinely applied to people outside the family.

  • Using grandfather (or some variant) to address an old man is something that should be done with extreme caution. In America people tend to find it extremely offensive. My mother's still fuming about the photographer at her wedding calling her grandfather "grandpa" decades later. – RoseofWords Oct 13 '15 at 1:44
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In Latin, the word is "avunculus", the diminutive form of "avus" (grandfather). Hence an uncle is a "little grandfather."

I suppose that calling a paternalistic figure or family friend "uncle" is a way to say that the person exhibits characteristics that are recognized as "grandfatherly."

  • That's interesting! Thanks for the etymology. I'm not sure it gets to the heart of the matter though: why is it "uncle", and not "grandfather", as in your example? – John Feminella Mar 17 '14 at 7:07
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If this helps, a similar use of the word is common in all Spanish speaking countries. Not in the sense of 'guy' or 'chap' or 'dude' (typical of in Spain), but to show familiarity or affection to someone who is so appreciated, but not a member of one´s family. You will typically say to your children: 'Go ask 'uncle' John if he wants to take you fishing today', and John is just a very close friend of yours.

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Uncle refers to elderly person in your nucleus whether related or not.

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    I understand the usage of the word "uncle" (or at least, I think I do). I was asking why it's this way, though. – John Feminella Mar 17 '14 at 7:06

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