All in the family: Etymologies of Spanish kinship terms

Now that the semester has ended, I’m turning my attention back to a research project on Spanish etymologies that I’ve neglected for months. I owe my readers a blog post introducing this project, but for the time being I’ll share this teaser on the etymology of kinship terms like madre and padre. These words are fun to look at because (i) all languages have a set of such words, which (ii) reflect culture, especially gender roles, and (iii) have surprisingly varied etymologies, many of which (iv) have interesting twists and turns.

All etymologies presented here are from Juan Corominas’ Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana (1961).

To begin with, five pairs of Spanish kinship terms derived their masculine variant from Latin and their feminine variant from the Spanish masculine. This is the largest class of kinship terms we will see here, which is to be expected given that in Spanish, as in most languages, the masculine gender is dominant, or ‘unmarked.’ Thus new words usually enter the language as masculine even if they end in an -a (e.g. yoga, from Sanskrit, and centinela, from Italian), and many feminine words add suffixes to masculine bases (e.g. actor/actriz, español/española).

Note that all pairs of this type except for hijo/hija feature an interesting etymological twist or turn.


Etymology of masculine term
(In all cases, the Spanish feminine term is derived from the Spanish masculine by changing final -o to ‑a.)
hijo/hija ‘son/daughter’Latin filius ‘son’
hermano/hermana ‘brother/sister’Latin germanus ‘of the same parents,’ from frater germanus ‘true brother, i.e. of the same parents’
primo/prima ‘cousin’Latin primus ‘first,’ from consobrinus primus ‘first cousin’
sobrino/sobrina ‘nephew, niece’Latin sobrinus ‘first cousin once removed,  second cousin, etc.’, replacing Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’ (as in English nepotism)
cuñado/cuñada ‘brother/sister-in-law’Latin cognatus ‘blood relative’ (con + natus ‘born with’) > ‘any type of relative’ > ‘in-law’ > ‘brother-in-law’

Three pairs of kinship terms developed in the opposite direction from those above: their feminine variants came directly from Latin, and then served as the source of their masculine variants. You might be able to guess that two of these these are terms for grandparents and in-laws. After all, many grandmothers play a large supporting role in their grandchildren’s lives (more so than most grandfathers do) and mothers-in-law loom large in legend and marital strife (more so than fathers-in-law do, unless creepy).


Etymology of feminine term
(In all cases, the Spanish masculine term is derived from the Spanish feminine by changing final -a to ‑o.)
Latin aviola, the diminutive form of avia ‘grandmother’ (like Spanish abuelita)
[Note: abuelo replaced the expected descendent of Latin avus ‘grandfather’]
Vulgar Latin socra ‘mother-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin socrus
[Note: suegro replaced the expected descendent of Latin socer ‘father-in-law’]
nieta/nieto ‘granddaughter/son’Vulgar Latin nepta ‘granddaughter’ or ‘niece,’ which “feminized” the ending of Classical Latin neptis
[Note: nieto replaced the expected descendent of Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’]

A few Spanish kinship terms come from unrelated masculine and feminine Latin roots.

padre/madre ‘father, mother’padre: Latin pater ‘father’
madre: Latin mater ‘mother’
yerno/nuera ‘son/daughter-in-law’yerno: Latin gener ‘son-in-law’
nuera: Vulgar Latin nora ‘daughter-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin nurus

Two final pairs of Spanish kinship terms are each sui generis.

tío/tía ‘uncle/aunt’Latin thius/thia ‘uncle/aunt’, from Greek thêios/théia ‘uncle/aunt’. These are rare examples of borrowed kinship terms.
padrastro/padrastra ‘stepfather/stepmother’padrastro: Vulgar Latin padraster ‘stepfather,’ derived from pater by adding the Latin pejorative suffix -aster; it replaced Classical Latin vitricus.
madrastra: Spanish derivative of madre, with the Spanish pejorative suffix -astra (from Latin ‑aster)

Some of the twists and turns described above reflect similar developments in the history of other words.

  • Just as suegra, nuera, and nieta “feminized” the masculine-sounding endings of Latin’s socrus and nurus, and the unrevealing -is ending of neptis, so too Latin infante ‘princess’ and seniore ‘lady’ became Spanish infanta and señora. Ralph Penny calls this process “hypercharacterization,” a phenomenon also seen when masculine Latin nouns like passare ‘bird’ and cortice ‘cork’ took on the standard -o ending to become Spanish pájaro and corcho.
  • Just as abuela absorbed the diminutive ending of Latin aviola, so too mantequilla ‘butter’ and various words ending in -eja, such as oveja ‘sheep,’ oreja ‘ear,’ and abeja ‘bee,’ come from Latin diminutives.
  • Cuñado‘s semantic transformation from Latin ‘blood relative’ (i.e., not an in-law) to ‘brother-in-law’ is no more far-fetched than that of ‘milestone’ to ‘doll’ or ‘wrist,’ or that of ‘broma’ from ‘shipworm’ to ‘joke.’

As a charming closing factoid, I learned that madre is related to the Spanish and English words metrópoli/metropolis, metropolitano/metropolitan, and metro (in the sense of ‘subway’), all via the Greek word metrópolis, meaning ‘mother city’ (ciudad madre).

It’s all in the family.

6 thoughts on “All in the family: Etymologies of Spanish kinship terms

  1. Charles Dietrick

    Some masculine feminine distinctions are no longer made, except with articles: el/la poeta; el/la piloto; etc. I believe this has become standard usage, with latinx lagging far behind.

  2. jhochberg Post author

    We have this also in English with people saying ‘poet’ or ‘actor’ regardless of gender. But I doubt that anyone calls a ‘padre’ a ‘madre!’

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Thanks, Jon! You will enjoy the cognates via Greek metrópoli that I just added to the post.


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