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August 02, 2019  |  Friday words #182  |  313 hit(s)

English is, I believe, comparatively spare in the area of kinship terms. We’re good to one degree of relation (brother, sister, mom, dad) and sometimes to a second degree (uncle, aunt, niece, nephew). But we’re stuck with the somewhat clunky -in-law for describing civil relations, and our great-great-great- convention for marking generations. Not to mention the whole N-times-removed thing for cousins, which, if my experience is typical, often has to be explained, not to mention counting on fingers.

So I was surprised to learn a new kinship term. The children of your aunts and uncles are your cousins. Your own collection of brothers and sisters are your siblings. But what do you call the collection of children of your brothers and sisters? They’re your nieces and nephews, sure. How about if we call them your niblings?

The word nibling was suggested as far back as 1951. It doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction outside the realm of “specialist literature,” as Wikipedia refers to it. (You won’t find it in most dictionaries.) The term was modeled on sibling, because that’s also a gender-neutral term for describing a relation. Sibling is sib-, an old Germanic word for “kin,” and the -ling suffix as either “concerned with” or as a diminutive. The nib- of nibling doesn’t really mean anything beyond evoking sibling with a n(iece/ephew) vibe. (I can’t resist noting that both niece and nephew came from the same root as nepotism, which comes from the Latin nepos, meaning “nephew, grandson.”)

For real origins today I have the word torpedo. I’ve known this word since I was a kid as the name of a weapon, a kind of self-propelled underwater bomb. So I was surprised whenever it was in my life that I learned that it was also the name of a fish. The fish—which was first—got that name because it was capable of an electrical discharge that could make someone stiff or numb: that is, it could put a person in a torpor. An obscure sense of torpedo is “one who has a benumbing influence.” (See if you can reintroduce that sense after the next particularly benumbing presentation that you attend.)

The milito-explosive sense of torpedo originally referred to what today we’d call a naval mine—a device designed to explode underwater to sink ships. The first appearance seems to be from 1776. An inventor named David Bushnell created a submarine that he named the Turtle (because it looked like a turtle) and tried to use it to attach an explosive device—a torpedo—to a British ship. (He failed.) It looks like torpedo-the-mine was named that because the idea was that it would render a boat torpid. (I’m having a surprisingly hard time finding a clear connection between the fish and the mine, for what it’s worth.) Anyway, the sense of an underwater explosive device transferred smoothly to the self-propelled device when that was finally invented in mid-1800s.

Since then, we’ve gotten the verbal sense of torpedo—both literal (“the U-boat torpedoed the cargo ship”) and metaphoric (“the majority leader torpedoed the legislation”). And depending on where you live, you might also know torpedo as the name of a sandwich. Not that we want to get into the multifarious naming conventions for sandwiches today.

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