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For specific context, the question arose out of discussing Han Solo calling Princess Leia "sister" in "Star Wars" Episode IV.

What is the etymology and context of using the term "sister" in this way? (unrelated woman that you're projecting a sense of familiarity onto).

Is it from the US Southern culture? From earlier decades of 20th century? Else?

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    Christian culture regards all of humanity (or, in the more up-tight versions of the religion, all Christians) to be brothers and sisters. (This does not imply a literal common parent, but rather a spiritual kinship.)
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 1, 2015 at 15:33
  • Much the same as calling someone brother, I suppose. A term of endearment?
    – WS2
    Dec 3, 2015 at 0:47
  • @HotLicks you should expand that into an answer. I'd upvote an answer like that.
    – RedCaio
    Feb 18, 2016 at 5:05
  • Wasn't that particular instance somewhat derogatory in usage (implication that she was junior in knowledge and experience)?
    – bgwiehle
    Mar 19, 2016 at 15:21
  • @bgwiehle - this is Han Solo we are talking here. He'd make that implied when talking to pretty much anyone, in-character. Glib, dismissive and disrespectful scoundrel conman.
    – DVK
    Mar 21, 2016 at 21:56

3 Answers 3

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Christian culture regards all of humanity (or, in the more up-tight versions of the religion, all Christians) to be brothers and sisters. (This does not imply a literal common parent, but rather a spiritual kinship.)

The use of "sister" to refer to an unrelated woman is certainly not practiced extensively in most of the (white) US, but the term is used in that sense in some religious sects, particularly in the US South. And, while I have little first-hand knowledge (and Urban Dictionary is useless here), I've been led to believe that the use is common in certain African-American subcultures.

Using the terminology in Star Wars, in the fashion it was used, would tend to re-enforce the sense that the speakers are members of a common cult or culture -- I don't think there's any deep hidden significance.

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I am white English, aged 75, and my wife of many years is black Nigerian (Igbo). Amongst her friends and relatives she is always "sister" and I, to my initial confusion, am usually called "brother". This is a generally used term in Nigeria - whether the rest of English-speaking West Africa uses it, I don't know. Even the Nigerian at my local hand car wash called me "brother" a few weeks back.

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sister etymology

mid-13c., from Old English sweostor, swuster "sister". Used of nuns in Old English; of a woman in general from 1906; of a black woman from 1926; and in the sense of "fellow feminist" from 1912. Meaning "female fellow-Christian" is from mid-15c. Sister act "variety act by two or more sisters" is from vaudeville (1908).

Thus, no it is not exclusive to U.S Southern culture. Its use from the etymology cited put its early use as 'not-related' to mid-medieval English

An unrelated woman regarded as bound to others by shared experiences or by membership of a particular group, and related senses. OED

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