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Popularized by the Fx show The League, the term Eskimo Brothers is a slightly misogynistic term for two men who have been physically intimate with the same woman. It is usually considered offensive, and at the very least is a little off-taste. According to Urban Dictionary (which is often discredited around here) the two men should not have hostility towards each other, but it easy to see that there is not much credibility in the base thought of "the two men shared the same igloo."

A google ngram shows that the term is ~100 years old, but to me, it seems like none of these references are related to the above idea of Eskimo Brothers, rather they refer to brother in the sense of a familial relationship or brothers in a more religious context.

Who can help shine some light on the origins of this term?

Edit: I remember this phrase being used when I was in high school, which means the phrase must have been used by 2003, at the latest.

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Possibly the show's writers have been reading social history or ethnography. According to Stephanie Koontz in Marriage, a History (2006),

Eskimo couples often had cospousal arrangements, in which each partner had sexual relations with the other's spouse.

The book itself has more details about the practice, including, if I recall correctly, notes on the relative absence of jealousy, but is not the only source of this information.

The practice (or more properly, practices, since particular forms vary depending on the peoples and also within cultures) has been discussed by anthropologists since at least the 1960s, with somewhat sensationalized reports of the custom back to the 1800s:

Among the Eskimo around Bering Strait, "It is a common custom for two men living in different villages to agree to become bond-fellows or brothers by adoption. Having made this arrangement, whenever one of the two men goes to the other's village he is received as the bond brother's guest and is given the use of his host's bed with his wife during his stay." (Nelson, 1896-97, p. 292). (Quoted in Rubel, link below.)

"Eskimo wife-sharing" has been a "rumor" in some form since at least the early 2000s, as this 2003 "Straight Dope" question and answer attests, and thus could have been known, at least in broad outline, by your high school friends when you first heard the term.

It doesn't seem like a very big stretch to generalize from a vague understanding of these practices, combining reports of "blood brothers" and the more familiar term "sister wives", to come up with "Eskimo Brothers".


As requested, some additional references (note that these aren't necessarily the most pivotal articles, just some that are available without a subscription):

Arthur J. Rubel, "Partnership and Wife-Exchange Among the Eskimo and Aleut of Northern North America" (1961) ARTHUR J. RuBEL

Lawrence Hennigh, "Functions and Limitations of Alaskan Eskimo Wife Trading", (1970)

Johnnetta B. Cole, Anthropology for the Nineties: Introductory Readings, "Marriage Among the North Alaskan Eskimos" (1988)

Kathrine E. Starkweather and Raymond Hames, "A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry" (2012)

  • Some reference to the practice of sharing wives by the Inuit or Yupik people outside of this article would lend additional credence to this. – USER_8675309 Aug 29 '16 at 15:09
  • I'm reasonably sure I've also read similar accounts of Greenlandic igloos (which were often quite large and shared by many families in former times). Not sure where I read it, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 29 '16 at 16:12
  • Boas (1888) notes, "A strange custom permits a man to lend his wife to a friend for a whole season or even longer and to exchange wives as a sign of friendship." Boas, F. (1888). Annual report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. 6, 1884-85. Washington: Government Printing Office. Also published as "The Central Eskimo". – shoover May 5 at 19:57
  • Found in bibliography of D'Anglure, B.,S. (1993). The shaman's share, or inuit sexual communism in the canadian central arctic. Anthropologica, 35 (1), 59-103. whose abstract starts out "The most recent edition of the Handbook of North American Indians (Arctic [1984] 5), devoted to the Inuit, only mentions private spouse exchange with reference to 12 of the 20 large Inuit groups described." Abstract also cites Guemple, D. L. (1961). Inuit spouse exchange. Chicago: Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago. Guemple seems to have been one of the authorities in this field. – shoover May 5 at 19:58
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According to the people on the show it's from 1992.

Namely, they credit the writer Billy Kimball. Of course, Kimball might very well have been inspired by the pre-92 books listed in the answer of 1006a, one of which came out four years prior.

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A Mexican once told me that the term was derives from the Spanish "hermanos esquimal." Esquimos (which directly translates as Eskimos) are a type of smoothie that is sold in Mexico City. I believe the term was used as a euphemism for a certain bodily fluid.

This is hearsay, of course. Any Spanish speakers around that can/would recall the use of the term before the early-ninties?

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