John Larrysson's Column: Family Words

All children learn the words brother, sister, mother and father, but beyond those the words, describing family relationships in English can be confusing. In Hong Kong English the words uncle and aunt usually describe a friend of one's parents; elsewhere this definition is sometimes, but not always, acceptable. So today I am listing most of the common words describing family members and will go over language problems with some of them. I divided the words into groups and put the more common words first.

Immediate Family

In the immediate family are the words one is mostly likely to know, one's silly sister, bothersome brother as well as one's faithful father and model mother.

[audio 1]

sister: a female sibling (see sibling below)

brother: a male sibling

elder brother / sister: an older male / female sibling

younger sister / brother: a younger female / male sibling

mother: one's female parent

father: one's male parent

half-brother: a boy with whom one shares one, but not both parents

half-sister: a girl with whom one shares one, but not both parents

sibling: a person with the same parents as oneself

parent: a person who has a child


Younger children may be called a bouncing baby, an interesting infant or a terrific toddler. When one's father marries for a second time one will then have a steady step-mother.

[audio 2]

baby: a very young child

infant: 1. a young child who is not yet walking or speaking (original and most common meaning) 

          2. (in the UK school system) children between the ages of four and seven years old

          Note: Early UK primary schools are called the infants or infants' school, but it is uncommon to refer to a student of this age as an infant. 

toddler: a young child who has just learnt to walk

step-: a prefix meaning that a family relationship is created by one parent remarrying. Normally the prefix step- is not used in everyday life, but is used when discussing legal matters regarding children.   

stepmother: one's father's new wife

stepfather: one's mother's new husband

stepson: a son of a husband or wife by a previous marriage

stepdaughter: a daughter of a husband or wife by a previous marriage

bastard: a child born to parents who are not married (to each other)


Marriage is an important part of our society. So we have words for the different stages. A woman starts out as a great girlfriend, then after an engagement becomes a fabulous fiancée. On the wedding day she is a beautiful bride and finally after the wedding, she becomes a wonderful wife completely consummated on her happy honeymoon.  But being a wife is not the end, one may sadly then become a woeful widow.

[audio 3]

boyfriend: a man with whom one is romantically involved 

girlfriend: a woman with whom one is romantically involved 

Note: For the words boyfriend and girlfriend, the terms boy and girl are used to indicate informality and familiarity, not age.

husband: the man to whom someone is married

wife: the woman to whom someone is married

betrothed: engaged

engaged: promised to marry

fiancée: a woman who has agreed to marry someone 

fiancé: a man who has agreed to marry someone 

wedding: a marriage ceremony

bride: a woman on her wedding day

groom, bridegroom: a man on his wedding day 

Note: Another meaning of the word groom is a servant who takes care of horses. 

(I am sure that there is some double-meaning here.)

honeymoon: the holiday of a couple who have just got married 

Note: Originally it was the period of heightened affection during the first month of marriage, not a holiday

consummated: completely fulfilled 

Note: In order for the marriage to be legal the couple must have made love physically with each other.  

divorce: the legal ending of a marriage

separated: the unofficial ended of a marriage, literally no longer living together

single: not married or engaged and without a romantic partner.  

Note: Another meaning of the word single (as a noun) is a one song musical recording.

marriage: the legal relationship between a husband and wife

gay marriage: a legal relationship between two people of the same sex. 

Note: The older meaning of gay was happy; so older books might intend a different meaning. 

partner: someone treated as a husband or wife, but is not legally married 

common-law wife / husband / married: a couple who lives together for a long time     

Note: Legally they must be thought to be married by friends, family and the community, but without ever going through a formal church ceremony or getting a marriage permit. The legal definitions vary from place to place. Often the law considers them married, with all that may mean. 

in-law: related by marriage

Note: The adjective in-law follows the French order and is put after the noun it describes, instead of before the noun, as is common in English. (Post-Positive Adjectives

mother in-law: the mother of one's spouse  

father in-law: the father of one's spouse  

daughter-in-law: son's wife

son-in-law: daughter's husband

spouse: husband or wife

widow: a woman whose husband has died

widower: a man whose wife has died

bachelor: a man who has never been married

Note: A confirmed bachelor is a man who decides never to get married and the term is also a polite synonym for being homosexual.  

Note: A bachelor degree is the first one normally obtained at university, when one is assumed to be a bachelor.

spinster: an (older) woman who has never been married

Extended family

One's extended family contains many people that one has likely never even met. In our modern world some of these words are less important. In the old days when one lived one's entire life in the same village one would have frequently met these people. After uncertain uncles and anxious aunts, there are curious cousins. One may have nice nieces and naughty nephews. There are both maternal and paternal grandparents. They are all one's kindly kin.

[audio 4]

uncle: 1. parent's brother or husband of a parent's siblings  

       2. (Hong Kong English) male friend of one's parents

aunt: 1. parent's sister or wife of a parent's sibling. 

      2. (Hong Kong English) female friend of one's parents

grandfather: one's parent's father

grandmother: one's parent's mother

niece: daughter of one's sibling or one's spouse's sibling

nephew: son of one's sibling or one's spouse's sibling

first cousin: the child of one's parents' brothers or sisters. One and one's first cousins share one pair of grandparents.

double-first cousin: one who shares both pairs of grandparents, but who are not siblings. If someone marries the sister of their brother's wife, their children are not only first cousins, they're double first cousins: They have both pairs of grandparents in common. Genetically they are the equivalent of siblings. 

second cousin: one who shares a pair of great-grandparents. 

third cousin: one who shares at least one great-great-grandparent. 

Hint: The number of great / grands in front of the nearest common ancestor is the number put in front of cousin.

cousin once removed: one who is descended from the same grandparents, but with a different generation number. 

For example: If the grandparent of one is the great-grandparent of the other. They are second cousins, once removed. 

great grandmother: one's parent's grandmother

great-grandfather: one's parent's grandfather

Note: Just add another great for each generation. One's father's great-grandmother is one's great-great-grandmother. 

maternal grandfather: one's mother's father

paternal grandmother: one's father's mother

paternal grandfather: one's father's father

maternal grandmother: one's mother's mother

godfather: a man who speaks for a child at baptism and promises to take responsibility for the child's religious education. Also he may take care of the child if his / her parents die. (This duty evolved in some crime families, creating a crime boss referred to as godfather.) 

godmother: a woman who speaks for a child at baptism and promises to take responsibility for the child's religious education. Also she may take care of the child if his / her parents die. 

kin: family, including all relatives

kith and kin: friends and family, including all relatives

Note: The word kith, meaning friends, is a fossil word and today is normally only found in this expression.

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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