Learn English – What are existing gender-neutral words for various relatives?


In a world where gender identity notation is important, we need gender-neutral words to refer to relatives. "Spouse," "sibling," and "nibling" (niece or nephew) are the only ones I know. Are there others? Should we invent some?

Best Answer

Travelling upwards in your family tree:

  • Mother/Father: Parent
  • Grandmother/Grandfather: Grandparent
  • Continually add "great" as you travel more upwards: great grandparent, great great grandparent, etc.

Travelling downwards in your family tree:

  • Son/Daughter: Child
  • Grandson/Granddaughter: Grandchild
  • Continually add "great" as you travel more downwards: great grandchild, great great grandchild, etc.

Travelling otherwise in your family tree:

  • Niece/Nephew: No current English word exists, "nibling" is an emerging term, but would still be considered slang at this stage. Not a single-word, but a phrase could be "parent's sibling's child."
  • Aunt/Uncle: No current English word exists, "pibling" is a term that is beginning to be tossed around, but seems to not be as accepted as "nibling." Interestingly, the linguist who coined "nibling" did not offer a gender-neutral term for aunt/uncle. Not a single-word, but a phrase could be "parent's sibling."
  • Cousin: already gender neutral
  • Husband/Wife: spouse
  • Brother/Sister: sibling

Currently in English the usage of the non-gender-specific usage of these words could be considered a more tense language than their gender-specific versions, if the speaker is referring to a single relative. For example, referring to your brother as "sibling" instead of "brother" would seem more tense, whereas if you were referring to all of your, say five, siblings, using the term "siblings" rather than "brothers and sisters" would not come off as tense, but would be more formal.

Alongside the tense/formal aspect, in day-to-say speech it is overall more common that the gender-neutral terms are used in a plural sense to refer to a group. "I love visiting with all of my siblings when I'm in town," is much more common than, "I love visiting with my sibling."

It is odd to me that aunt/uncle and niece/nephew are the only familial relationship words in English that don't have a gender-neutral variant, but I believe it is simply due to the etymology of the words.

Parent can be traced to the Latin parire, meaning "bring forth, give birth to, produce."

Cousin can be traced to the Latin com, meaning "with, together", and soror meaning sister, and could essentially be described as "sister on mother's side." I am unsure why cousin went from female-specific in Latin to neutral in English, perhaps it is due to the same reasoning that English uses "mother/sister/daughter" as relationship-describing adjectives ("sister company").

Aunt/uncle and niece/nephew were already specific to gender in Latin, and they continued to stay as such in English.