The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Family’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

What are the origins of the word ‘family’, and what does ‘family’ have to do with the word ‘familiar’, or, for that matter, with the Latin famulus? We might assume that the etymology of ‘family’ will be straightforward, denoting a group of related people, but that meaning of the term is actually surprisingly recent. Let’s take a closer look …

The modern English word ‘family’ has its origins in the Latin word famulus, which simply meant ‘servant’. This word entered English in its own right, although it’s never really been what we could call popular: the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as an ‘attendant, esp. on a scholar or a magician’. The two citations are both from the nineteenth century, from the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle and from the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, from his novel Henry Esmond (1852): ‘Faithful little famuli see all and say nothing.’

So how did famulus come to give us ‘family’, if famulus meant ‘servant’ rather than, say, ‘blood relative’?

In Roman times, the classical Latin word familia meant ‘household’ and related to the servants within a household. The word also denoted a troop of gladiators, a retinue of servants attending on some important or wealthy person, and a group of people connected by blood or affinity. Familia was also used to refer to a school (e.g., of philosophy), or an estate (taking us back to households).

All of these connotations, and the word familia itself, originate in the Latin word famulus, meaning ‘servant’.

Because servants lived in the same house as the people they served, and these people often constituted a group of people related by blood (the parents, their children, and so on), the Latin familia broadened its meaning from merely ‘servants’ to ‘people related by blood’. This meaning was then passed down to the French famille, which – along with the Latin familia – helped to influence the formation of the English word ‘family’.

By the fifteenth century, the word ‘family’ was being used in the modern sense to refer to a group of blood relatives, although the older meaning of the word remained for some time as well, coexisting with this newer sense. In time, of course, the meaning of the word narrowed so it was only used in domestic contexts to refer to people related by blood.

But the word ‘family’ has continued to grow, and has attracted new meanings over the centuries: in scientific taxonomy, for instance, it relates to a group of plants, animals, or other organisms which are related in some way, and comes between ‘order’ and ‘genus’ in the taxonomical ranking (which, in full, runs ‘kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species’ – an order it’s perhaps easiest to remember by noting the mnemonic ‘King Philip Comes Over For Good Sex’).

The word ‘family’ has given rise to a whole host of family-related phrases: ‘family values’ is first attested from 1912, ‘family ties’ dates all the way back to 1727, and ‘in the family way’, to refer to being pregnant, is found as early as 1688, in Ralph Thoresby’s diary: ‘I was most concerned for my dear wife, who was in the family way.’

In one of his early Sketches by Boz, published in 1835, Charles Dickens appears to have been the first known person to use the now-familiar (as it were) idiom ‘keep it in the family’: ‘When you come to talk about slaves, and that there gammon, you’d better keep it in the family, ’cos I, for one, don’t like to be called them names.’

The link between ‘family’ and ‘familiar’ is easy enough to explain. Originally, ‘familiar’ was a noun denoting a servant or other member of the household, and in the fifteenth century came to mean ‘associate’ or ‘close friend’, i.e., a person with whom one is familiar. It was in the late sixteenth century, that the more familiar (as it were) meaning – a spirit, often taking the form of an animal, which assists a witch – came into being.

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