Special Supplemental Letter from the Editor-at-Bat—Butch McBastard SpecGram Vol CLXXVIII, No π Contents On Pseudo-Psiblings—A Good Start in Need of Significant Linguistic Improvements Which We Have Undertaken and Are Here to Report On—Fillastre Pèl-Roig, Belle-Fille Rousse, Hijastro Pelirrojo, Rauðaz Khæran Steupa-Kiltham, Rotkopf Stiefkind, Punatukkainen Tytärpuoli, and Vörös Hajú Mostohagyerek

And Other Views of Multiply-Blended Families

A proposal for improving and clarifying family nomenclature for the 21st century

by Trey Jones


Language evolvesotherwise we’d all be able to read Beowulf in the original, right? Sometimes language changes in response to cultural changes. But sometimes it doesn’t change fast enough to keep up with cultural changes. This paper seeks to give English a little push in a much-needed direction.

There has been a fairly radical change in Western society in the last hundred years or so. It used to be that if a woman was on her fourth husband, one automatically felt a little sorry for her, because it meant she had likely buried three good men. Nowadays, if a man is on his fourth wife, one automatically feels a little sorry for him, because it means he clearly has problems holding a marriage together.

Marriage. Divorce. Remarriage. Redivorce. Rinse. Repeat. What was once a stately family tree stretching back many generations now becomes, as often as not, an unruly, sprawling family bush, even going back only one generation. (See Figure 1, below, for an example.)

Click to open a floating copy of the image. You’re going to need it.

child of
adopted from
α first marriage
β second marriage
γ third marriage

Figure 1. X’s Family Bush

An Extended Example of an Extended Family

A friend of mine, we’ll call him X, sketched the family bush above. He is #1 in the diagram. He’s actually very good at drawing the diagram because his wife (#2) comes from what he calls “a pathologically unbroken home” and has trouble keeping all the relatives and relations straight.

Let’s investigate the relationships in the diagram, and the kinship terms X uses to describe them. Both of his parents are on their third marriage. His mother’s second marriage resulted in a child, X’s half-brother (#3). X’s mother’s second marriage was also her second husband’s second marriage, and he had one daughter (#4) from his first marriage. So, #3 is X’s half-brother, and also #4’s half-brother, though X and #4 are not blood relatives. For the duration of his mother’s second marriage, #4 was also X’s step-sister. But she is no longer.

X now refers to her (#4) as “my ex-step-sister, who is also my half-brother’s half-sister.” The embellishment of the “half-brother’s half-sister” is not only added to confuse the inattentivethough it does do thatit also illustrates why #4 is still relevant to X’s life: blood kin of blood kin, though not blood kin, are still important. That is, X’s half-brother naturally talks to X about his own half-sister from time to time.

Rapidly diminishing in importance, but still the matter of occasional conversation, are #4’s mother’s children from her second marriage (#5). These are X’s half-brother’s half-sister’s half-siblings. There are also rumors that those two have yet more half-siblings on their father’s side (#6). One can almost imagine this broken chain circling the globe.

Of much more importance to X than his half-brother’s half-sister’s half-siblings’ likely half-siblings are his half-brother’s step-siblings (#7). #3’s father remarried for a third time as well, and #3 currently has a step-brother and step-sister. Since they live with #3’s father, #3 talks about them from time to time with X (who in turn discusses them with #2, his wife, even though she can’t really recall who they are).

Moving back a little closer to X, X’s mother is married for the third time to a man who has an adopted daughter (#8). That is, X’s step-sister was adopted in a previous marriage. X is relatively close to #8, and this of course means they frequently discuss issues related to birth-parents, adoptive-parents, step-parents, and “just plain parents.”

That pretty much covers X’s mother’s side of the family. Now let us consider X’s father’s side of the family, where matters are more complex.

X’s father’s second wife (#9) left him on amicable terms when she came to the realization, fairly late in her life, that despite her conservative upbringing, she was in fact a lesbian. #9 was X’s step-mother for a few years, and they keep in touch by email and still see each other from time to time at social gatherings. So, X is quite aware that #9 has since remarried another woman, and the two of them have had a son (#10). #9’s son is actually the biological product of her partner’s eggs and sperm from an anonymous donor. #9 has legally adopted #10, as well. So, #10 has two mothers, both his legal guardians, one of which is his biological mother, and the other of which is his adoptive mother. To recap, #10 is X’s father’s second wife’s adopted son, but also X’s father’s second wife’s partner’s biological son.

X’s father met his third, current, wife (#11) at a meeting of SXEGL (Straight Exes of Emergent Gays and Lesbians), which means, that she, too, has a homosexual ex (#12) that she is on friendly terms with. Again, X runs into #12 and his family from time to time at social gatherings. Because of X’s family’s fairly extreme social conservatism, the so-called “scandalous” details and on-going developments of both #9’s and #12’s family arrangements are much-discussed topics.

#12 and his partner have two children. The first, a girl (#14) is the biological product of #12 and his partner’s older sister (#13) who also carried the baby. #12’s partner legally adopted the baby when she was born. So, #14 has two fathers, one of which is her biological father, the other of which is her adoptive father, and also her birth-mother’s brother. Thus her biological/surrogate mother is her adoptive aunt, and her adoptive father is her biological uncle. Further complicating things, #13 later went on to have a family of her own (not shown in the diagram) so #14 also has biological half-siblings who are also her adoptive cousins.

The situation with #14 became fairly complex once #13 married and had children of her own. So, when #12 and his partner decided to have a second child, they adopted a little boy from overseas (#15) who had been orphaned, rather than try to convince #13 to convince her new husband to let her carry another baby for them.

Again moving back a little closer to home for X, his current step-mother (#11) also comes from a “slightly broken home”. Her parents divorced and her father remarried. Thus X’s step-mother also has a step-mother (#16).

#11 has two children from her first marriage. Her son is married with five kids (#17X’s “step-nieces and step-nephews”). #11’s daughter is divorced, from a man X refers to as his “ex-step-brother-in-law” (#18).

Finally, let us not forget the relatively mundane fact that X’s wife (#2) has two younger sisters, who are X’s sisters-in-law. X also likes to point out to his wife that she has not only a brother-in-law (X’s younger brother), but also a half-brother-in-law (#3), multiple step-sisters-in-lawan adoptive step-sister-in-law (#8) and a “plain” step-sister-in-law (#11’s daughter)step-nieces and step-nephews (#17), and an ex-step-brother-in-law. Needless to say, #2 doesn’t always find this very funny.

Interestingly, X and his wife don’t seem to have addressed the fact that her “ex-step-brother-in-law” was never her step-brother-in-law. If we interpret ex- to have scope over just step rather than all of step-brother-in-law, then it makes a certain kind of sense that X’s ex-step-brother would be his wife’s (ex-step-brother)-in-law. We will return to this later.


X has told me that he sometimes elides the details of his sibling-like relationships when telling stories about his complex clan. He feels very big-brotherly toward both his much younger adoptive step-sister (#8) and his sisters-in-law, and of course he considers his biological half-brother (#3) his “real” brother (they grew up in the same house). So he often casually refers to these folks, along with his ex-step-sister (#4) and his current step-siblings (#11’s kids) collectively as his “siblings”, even though many of them have never met each other, and likely never will. X says it is just too hard, when speaking of growing up with younger girls in the house, to refer to his “step-sister on my mother’s side, my step-sister on my father’s side, and my sisters-in-law”he has no biological sistersso instead he just talks about his “sisters”.

X asked me, as a linguist, what I thought of his casual labeling. I told him that he really needed to talk to an anthropologist who is an expert in kinship termsbut then I thought about it some more and decided that a good label for these sibling-like relationships, collectively, is the term “Pseudo-Psiblings”™. He said he’s been using it since I recommended it, and he likes it.

On a side note, I’ve spelled Pseudo-Psiblings™ with an extra P for several reasons, which I want briefly to explain. There, that seems reason enough!

However, I couldn’t let the matter rest there, so I analyzed X’s patterns of usage, and I have abstracted out some of the generalities, which I wish to extend even further.

Established TerminologyBasic Relations

First, let’s look at some common meanings of Western kinship terms in English, and X’s own extensions to them. In order to bootstrap our lexicon, we will begin with some “default” definitions and expand them. This is not intended to be exclusionarywe just have to start somewhere.

We will start by taking this first batch of definitions as well-known axioms, though we will expand upon these relationships later.

Now things become a bit complicated. There is a second definition each for aunt and uncle, namely the spouse of an aunt1 or uncle1. But we have not defined spousal relationships yet. X’s own usage is fairly clear, and I have used it above without comment in detailing his family bush.

The use of partner for same-sex couples stems from the days when same-sex marriage was not legally recognized. However, as X’s usage shows, it also helps to clarify fairly complex family situations, as when discussing #12’s ex-wife, or current partner, or #9’s ex-husband or current partner. We will follow this usage throughout, though others’ usage may of course vary according to their taste.

Established TerminologyExtended Relations

There is also another possible set of definitions for aunt2 and uncle2, which we consider briefly now.

This definition of aunt was used for comedic effect in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire by Robin Williams’s character, who, when talking to his own children, refers to his gay brother’s partner as “Aunt Jack”. It is not known to be used seriously, but given that avuncular relationships are not always considered of grave importance in Western culture, and the fact that “matched sets” of an aunt and an uncle are appealing, anything is possible. We will, following X’s usage, not use aunt2a and uncle2a.

We will use unadorned aunt and uncle when we do not need to or cannot distinguish between aunt1 and aunt2 or uncle1 and uncle2.

We must stop here to consider another definition a little more carefully. We will want to define certain relationships by “reciprocation”. That is, may want to define one type of relationship as primary, and then define the inverse, or reciprocal relationship as a consequence of that primary relationship. Reciprocation will, as we shall see, be important for distinguishing step- from -in-law.

An easier example for now:

That is, if A is the aunt or uncle of N, then if N is female, N is the niece of A. If N is male, N is the nephew of A.

Cousins removed by one or more generations do not use the great-/grand- modifier (see more on this below). This is likely because cousins of approximately the same age are often the same generation, and thus are displaced by the same number of generations on both sides.

Cousins, being a generally messy bunch in a genealogical sense, are often of the same approximate age but not of the same generation. In that case the term removed is used. In general, one finds the shallower side of the relationship (i.e., spanning the fewest generations), and then uses “k-times removed” to illuminate the generational difference. Thus a parent’s second cousin (or a second cousin’s childthe reciprocal relationship) is one’s second cousin once removed.

Because the “nth cousin k-times removed” system is unique and not readily applicable to other situations, we will not be using it further. However, we will note in passing that if great-/grand- did apply to cousins, a grand-cousin would be a parent’s cousin, and thus a first cousin, once removed. A great-grand-second cousin would be a grand-parent’s second cousin (or the grand-child of a second cousin), and thus a second cousin, twice removed. It is unclear whether such a system would be any more transparent. Perhaps.

Established TerminologyRelationship Modifiers

Let us consider some relationship modifiers:

The modifier half- seems only to apply to siblings (and sibling-mediated relationships, like aunt, uncle, or sister-in-law)that being the only relationship expecting a double link. The modifier double- applies most readily to variations on cousins. In certain cases of incest (parents who are siblings) a double-grand-parent is possible (though unlikely to be advertised by the family). Many other doubles can be imagined, but are likely rare in the U.S. outside West Virginia.

Now let us consider some relationships defined by marriage:

Notice the key use of reciprocal relationships. In-laws are defined primarily as the relatives of one’s spouseand thus reciprocally as the spouses of one’s relatives. Steps are the relatives of one’s parent’s non-parent spouseor reciprocally the non-relative relatives of one’s spouse. (Following the usage of X and others, we use steps as a collective term, analogous to the more well-known collective use of in-laws.)

The modifier ex- of course, can apply to former in-laws and former steps.

Our final set of basic, existing terms are modifiers that apply to adoption and similar situations.

Except when necessary for reasons of biological or legal explanation, adopted or adoptive is generally not used. For example, one’s adopted child is usually considered one’s child in every sense except in medical matters of biological inheritance.

Extended TerminologyMultiple Steps

Let us begin by examining the multiply-ambiguous term step-uncle. First, as we’ve seen before, we have two kinds of uncle. Let us decompose and recompose these meanings:

Because uncle is itself ambiguous, step-uncle is even more so; irredeemably so, in fact.

Let us now consider another, somewhat more tractable example: step-grand-father. Decomposing as before, we get: “step + (parent’s father)”. Thus step can apply to either parent or father:

However, when we consider the relationship between X and #16 above, we see the short-coming of this ambiguity: #16 is X’s step-mother’s step-mother. Do we call her X’s step-step-grand-mother? We could, but a more perspicacious formulation would be step-grand-step-mother. Lest this seem like splitting hairs, consider these examples:

In the last three examples we see why stacking steps in front doesn’t work. All three would be step-step-great-grand-mother.

Extended TerminologyAdding Exes and In-Laws

Of course, any step-relationship can be broken by divorce. The stacked modifier ex-step covers this nicely, as in the fairly detailed example: step-great-ex-step-grand-father = step-parent’s ex-step-parent’s father.

The complexity of step-relationships comes from the fact that almost any link in the relationship chain can be a step link. By comparison, in-law relationships require the marriage that creates the relationship be at one terminus of the relationship chain. Thus great-step-grand-mother-in-law is perfectly reasonable: (parent’s step-parent’s mother) + (of the spouse)that is, one’s spouse’s parent’s step-parent’s mother.

Unfortunately the fact that steps bind rightward, in-laws bind leftward, and exes bind rightward means that terms like ex-step-mother-in-law are ambiguous, giving:

ex + (step-mother of the spouse)
which could be either one’s spouse’s former step-mother, or one’s former spouse’s step-mother. Of course, context may make these ambiguous cases clearas with someone who, uninterestingly, has no former spouses, thus limiting the ex- to apply to a step-relationship. (Similarly, context and limits on available familial relationships may make terms like uncle and sister-in-law unambiguous in certain cases.)

X seems able to use subtle pronunciation differences to attempt to resolve some cases of ambiguity. Stressed syllables mark grouping breaks, as in these examples:

This seems too subtle for practical use, and difficult or impossible to teach to non-linguists from relatively unbroken homes.

However, if we use the ex-step formulation, then complex relationships that don’t begin with step are clearer:

Another example that many people have trouble with is a spouse’s sibling’s spouse. Let us take the case of a man (M)’s wife (W)’s sister (S)’s husband (H).

Computing that a man’s sister’s husband’s brother is also his brother-in-law-in-law is left as an exercise for the reader. One’s brother-in-law-in-law’s wife is likewise one’s sister-in-law-in-law-in-law.

In common usage, though, brother-in-law-in-law, et al., are often de-duplicated to brother-in-law, with details provided as needed (“my wife’s brother-in-law” or “my sister-in-law’s husband”).

Note that, in a riddle context “my sister-in-law’s husband” and “my wife’s brother-in-law” could both easily refer to “my brother”. However this violates a general constraint of kinship terminology: when working with complicated relationships, always try to take the shortest or most important non-circular path (“my brother’s brother’s brother’s brother’s brother” is just “my brother”), and favor a better path over a complementary path that would complete a circle (“my half-brother” can also be “my step-sister’s half-brother”)other than for explanatory purposes.

Some ExamplesMore Ambiguity

Let us consider a couple of ambiguous cases to work through some of the issues associated with them, as additional practice in composition and decomposition.

Consider possible decompositions of step-cousin:

Conversely, we can compose each of these back into step-cousin:

The big problem with step-relationships and complex and/or ambiguous terms like cousin, aunt, or uncle is that the location of the step-portion of the relationship is hard to specify. Further, multiple steps are possible: step-parent’s step-sibling’s step-child, which could be a triple-step-cousinwhile not very precise, it is satisfying in demonstrating the tenuousness of the relationship.

Now let us consider possible decompositions of cousin-in-law:

So, we conclude that a cousin-in-law is either a spouse’s cousin or a cousin’s spouse.

More ExamplesMore Complexity

Some constructedthat is, unattested in my somewhat limited experience, but not implausibleexamples are also illustrative.

Consider a couple, John and Mary, who meet and marry in the usual way. Suppose that John’s father and Mary’s mother, both unmarried themselves (divorced or widowed) decide to also marry. Now John and Mary are not only husband and wife, but also step-siblings. If John and Mary are young (say 20 or so) and their parents each had their respective child when young (say 20 or so), then the parents could still be young enough (40 or so) to have another child. Thus John and Mary would share a half-siblinglet’s say a sister. That half-sister would be John and Mary’s children’s auntspecifically a half-aunton both sides. That is, John and Mary’s half-sister would be their children’s double-half-aunt.

As another example, suppose that #12 and his partner (see Figure 1, above) were to divorce. In that case, #13’s relationship to #12 could be characterized as:

Each of these relationships could be most relevant in certain circumstances. Thus the principle of “shortest or most important non-circular path” does not necessarily give unambiguous results, because “most important” can vary from situation to situation.

Of course, this system, while powerful and flexible within the limits circumscribed by the ambiguity inherent in Western kinship terms, is nonetheless subject to abuse. Consider this silly, hideous example:

While comprehensible (that is, decomposablethe verification of which is left as yet another exercise for the reader), it does seem to be going a touch overboard.

Unresolved Complexity and Lexical Gaps

There are still some obvious holes in the proposed system of family nomenclature. In large part this is because the goal in this paper has been to expand the existing system of terms and, perhaps more importantly, modifiers to those terms by formally defining their properties and viewing them as more productive than is traditional.

With the exception of Pseudo-Psiblings™, which was posed to solve X’s specific conundrum that spawned this exegesis in the first place, no new vocabulary has been proposed.

Two examples, one each relating to birth and death, will exemplify the lack that remains unfulfilled.

The relationship between a birth parent and an adoptive parent (particularly in an open adoption, where the people involved are likely in regular contact, and may need to explain their relationship to others with some frequency) remains unnamed. “The birth-mother of my adopted daughter” is clunky, though workable. The reciprocal is yet more difficult, because the reciprocal of birth-mother is also unnamed. “The adoptive mother of my daughter who I gave up for adoption” is unwieldy, at best. Birth-daughter seems unsatisfyingly redundant, as do other similar terms.

Apparently, fnoogle has been suggested as a symmetric term for the birth-parent-to-adoptive-parent relationship (Jennifer Kelly and Kean Kaufmann, personal communication, 2005), with birth fnoogle and adoptive fnoogle to be used, as needed, for clarification. This term does not seem to have gained wide currency, though.

At the other end of the cycle of life, while late is perfectly reasonable to describe a deceased relative (late grand-father, late sister, late step-uncle), there is no good term to describe a relationship that was originally “by marriage” when that marriage ends in the death of the key linking relative.

For example, if a spouse dies, are the spouse’s parents still “in-laws”? If an aunt1 (a parent’s sister) dies, what of the newly widowed uncle2? While widow and widower provide some help, they are too general in common usage. “My widowed friend” does not imply that the person referred to is merely the spouse of a friend. So, possible terms like widowed uncle or widowed sister-in-law are ambiguous as to whether the linking marriage has been broken by death.

It may not be possible to rationalize terms for such relationships, since the way they are treated varies greatly from family to family. The strength of the relationship after the death of the linking person determines whether ties created by the marriage survive. Children and proximity can greatly strengthen a relationship. If a spouse dies, but the spouse’s parents live close by and help raise the children left behind, the “in-law” relationship is likely to survive even a remarriage. (Though the question of what terms to use for one’s late child’s widowed spouse’s new spouse, or the reciprocal relationship, is mind-boggling. Perhaps “my grand-children’s step-parent” and “my step-children’s grand-parents” would suffice, but they fail to capture the nuance of the situation, as both seem to incorrectly imply that the non-step-parent is the grand-parents’ child.)

Beyond the scope of the present analysis are situations that now belong to the realm of science fiction (or at least to the realm of television). This includes such things as a double-parent who is both mother and father, but not a clone; clones, who are biological twins, but may be culturally and legally children; and identical twin cousins, who, despite their current non-existence and genetic unlikelihood, are known to be troublemakers.

As with many things that were once only fantasy, these, too, may come to pass. And so, while we may ignore them for now, we must keep our eyes on the horizon, to be better prepared for their perhaps inevitable arrival.


Today’s multiply-blended and re-blended families in Western society present extreme difficulties for any system of nomenclature evolved in more conservative times, when “serial monogamy” was an unreified concept.

The present system achieves its goal of greatly extending the power and flexibility of our nomenclature by rationalizing and productivizing existing terminology. Yet, clear lexical gaps remain, and situations without canonical interpretations unsurprisingly defy attempts to define canonical terminology.

Members of blended families will wish to familiarize themselves with this system, so as to explain their often complex situations and relations to friends (and even family from the less–well-blended portions of the family bush). As an aid to understanding blended familiesunderstanding both in terms of comprehension and compassionthose from “pathologically unbroken homes” should become conversant with this terminology, so that they can provide empathy and friendshiprather than vacant staresto that friend who wishes to discuss her (A) “ex-step-brother’s ex-wife (C)”, who is also her “half-brother’s (B) ex-half-sister-in-law and mother of his half-niblings (D)”. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. A Hypothetical Friend

Special Supplemental Letter from the Editor-at-BatButch McBastard
On Pseudo-PsiblingsA Good Start in Need of Significant Linguistic Improvements Which We Have Undertaken and Are Here to Report OnFillastre Pèl-Roig, Belle-Fille Rousse, Hijastro Pelirrojo, Rauðaz Khæran Steupa-Kiltham, Rotkopf Stiefkind, Punatukkainen Tytärpuoli, and Vörös Hajú Mostohagyerek
SpecGram Vol CLXXVIII, No π Contents