Saturday, October 11, 2014

Of Grands and Greats: Ancestral Nomenclature

There are two ways to describe your grandfather’s brother in English: Great Uncle and Grand Uncle. (There are actually six ways if one includes Great-Uncle, Grand-Uncle, Greatuncle, and Granduncle.)

[Note: I am sticking with the masculine terms throughout this post; everything applies equally to the parallel feminine terms.]

Some will tell you there is a ‘correct’ way. They are wrong. Both ‘Great Uncle” and “Grand Uncle” date back at least to the 15th century. (see citations below)
  • “his grete Uncle H. Cardinal of England” (Rolls of Parliament V.438, 1438)
  • “his graunt oncle Henry cardinalle of Englande” (Book of Noblesse, 1475)
Grand derives from the Anglo-Norman ‘Graunt’
Great derives from the Germanic ’Great.’

In French, the construction is very logical for uncles, fathers, and sons
  • Grand-oncle
  • Grand-grand-oncle
  • grand-Père
  • Grand-Grand-Père
  • Grand-Fils
  • Grand-Grand-Fils
However, in English, for fathers and sons, we start with grand, and then switch to great.
  • Grandfather
  • Great Grandfather
  • Grandson
  • Great Grandson
Some feel we should do the same with uncles and nephews
  • Grand Uncle
  • Great Grand Uncle
  • Grand Nephew
  • Great Grand Nephew
Many genealogists seem to like this construction because they feel it looks the best on a family tree. The same terms are used for everybody on the same hierarchy. Your ancestors' siblings are equally grand or great. Your great great grandfather's brother would be your great great granduncle.

Some like a construction similar to the French, but using Great.
  • Great Uncle
  • Great Great Uncle
However, there isn't only one correct method in English. Don't listen to those who insist there is.
Personally, I like the French system.

No comments: