Gender-neutral language has evoked anything but neutrality. What with snide remarks about non-gendered pronouns and the politicized and contrived fears about how such language is a sinister plot to groom children for non-heterosexual behavior and non-binary gender identities, you would think gender-neutral language is a major threat to democratic institutions or an existential crisis for humanity on the scale of climate change. But these attacks lack substance and mostly just reveal a lot about our conscious and subconscious insecurities and biases, as well as our uneasiness with change. Language, especially the language of science, needs to be respectful and supportive of all people in all their infinite variety. Being decent shouldn’t be hard.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The history of the word “sibling” demonstrates how a gender-neutral term can be readily incorporated into language without fanfare or brouhaha (a word whose origin is said to be the sound of the cry – Brou-Ha-Ha! – made by a devil disguised as a priest, a stock character in French medieval plays). The story of sibling also takes an interesting detour through eugenics, craniometry, sexism, and fragile male egos.
Both sib and sibling go back to Old English around the year 1000 CE. Sibb, as it was often spelled in Ye* Olde English, simply meant any relative, regardless of gender or sex. The -ling suffix in sibling at the time likely did not have the diminutive implication it acquired later, and probably implied a sense of “familykind,” like adding -kind to human to yield humankind. Both sib and sibling mean the same thing. Incidentally, sib is cognate with the -sip ending of the word gossip, which came from the Old English word godsibb, a sponsor or godparent. Many centuries later, through the vagaries of language change, gossip developed its modern sense of petty talk about others that may or may not be true, an etymologically appropriate connection considering all the gossip about gender neutral language.
Old English had grammatical gender, just as the Romance languages do today, which makes the gender neutrality of sibling all the more notable. Grammatical gender started to disappear from English under Viking rule in what was called the Danelaw region of England in the 9th and 10th centuries. Old Norse, the language spoken by Vikings, was not a gendered language. I reckon a bunch of Vikings were not going to sit down and make a good faith effort to learn the complicated and random gender assignments of inanimate objects of a country they had just pillaged and plundered. It was just easier to drop grammatical gender altogether. When you rule a country and have a fearsome reputation, it’s much easier to accomplish that. This also demonstrates that an entire language can become more gender neutral.
By the end of the 15th century, sibling seems to have fallen into disuse. Standard etymology sources suggest it disappeared altogether until re-emerging in 1903, although Google’s Ngram viewer indicates the word began to be used again in the last half of the 17th century, albeit rarely.
So what’s so special about 1903 that sibling should suddenly re-emerge as a common word in the English language? In 2 words – genetics and its alter-ego, eugenics, both of which took root in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Interest in familial disorders blossomed, as did the publication of pedigrees and articles that discussed family members. Looking for a shorthand way to say “brothers and sisters” when referring to the offspring of parents, an article published in 1903 titled “On the laws of inheritance in man” in the journal Biometrika, authored by Biometrika’s Editor Karl Pearson and his student/assistant Alice Lee, included this perfectly boring but linguistically notable sentence:
These will enable us, by using the formulae of simple or multiple correlation, which depend simply on linearity, to predict the probable character in any individual from a knowledge of one or more parents or brethren (“siblings,” = brothers or sisters).
There, parenthetically snuck in at the end of the sentence, Pearson and Lee resurrected and repurposed the word sibling, although without the intention of waving the banner of gender neutrality. But the point is that a gender-neutral term can be introduced into scientific discourse and eventually common discourse as well without the collapse of civilization as we know it. Pearson’s imprimatur, given his role as editor of a prestigious journal and towering reputation as an innovative mathematical statistician, probably helped with sibling’s wide acceptance. It’s also possible that earlier authors may have used the word sibling but it has so far escaped our notice. Nonetheless, the word was uncommon enough in 1903 that Pearson and Lee felt the need to define it.
Pearson and Lee are interesting stories in their own right, and here is where the story detours into eugenics, craniometry, fragile male egos, and sexism. Pearson was a key figure in the development of mathematical statistics. Most readers of this blog are familiar with the chi-squared test, the standard deviation, and the correlation statistic r, formally known as Pearson’s product-moment co-efficient, all of which are usually attributed to Pearson. As a prominent disciple of Francis Galton, he was also a dyed-in-the-wool eugenicist. Many of his statistical innovations were developed in the service of eugenics. True to eugenic form, Pearson also reportedly called sibling “a good Anglo-Saxon word.”
Alice Lee was one of the first women to earn a D. Sc. in Mathematics at University College London. At a time when women were regarded as intellectually inferior to men, her thesis set out to prove otherwise. Managing to talk her way into a meeting of the all-male Anatomical Society in Dublin in 1898, she managed to get 35 distinguished anatomists to agree to let her measure their heads. Her thesis compared those measurements to the head measurements of male faculty at University College and to the head measurements of female students at Bedford College where she was a faculty member (Bedford College was England’s first all-female institute of higher learning). Not only did her results show no correlation between intelligence and head size, some leading anatomists and one of the men on her thesis committee had some of the smallest head sizes (talk about an intimidatingly scary thesis defense – publicly telling a committee member he has a small brain!). One anatomist had a skull capacity that was less than 50% of the women students. Her findings, as you might guess, were not well received. Her work was criticized by her committee as “unscientific” because, well, everybody knows that women’s brains are smaller and they have lower intelligence than men and the committee didn’t like having a finger stuck in the eye of their male egos. Even Galton, who was not on her committee, was asked to weigh in and he too criticized her work on the same grounds. But Lee persisted, and with support from Pearson, who backed her analysis, she was awarded her doctorate. Lee’s research, with her listed as first author, was eventually published in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Despite her skills, she remained a low-paid assistant for her entire career and was only awarded a pension when Pearson again stepped in on her behalf.
Now back to the sibling story. English, of course, is not the only language that has a gender-neutral word for siblings. For example, German geschwister essentially translates as sibling. As does the Turkish word kardeş, which has a delightful etymology. The word was initially karindaş, a combination of karin (“belly”) + daş (“sharer”). Siblings shared a womb (usually asynchronously) and were therefore “belly sharers.”
Sibling has produced its own linguistic offspring (another gender neutral term that goes back to Old English). Nibling, a term for the children of your siblings (niece/nephew+sibling), was supposedly coined by the Yale linguist Samuel E. Martin in 1951, with a colleague “Dr. Sane.” But I have been unable to track down a citation by Martin proving this nor could I dig up anything about “Dr. Sane.” Chibling (children of my siblings) is a more recent variant of nibling. Pibling, a term for aunts and uncles (parent+sibling) was, as far as I can tell, coined in a brief 2005 article in the British Journal of General Practice authored by Dr. Neville Goodman. Perhaps I will be proved wrong, but to my ear these words sound too cute and contrived to gain wide acceptance. For what it’s worth, my spellchecker tried to correct chibling and pibling, but not nibling.
English, and many other languages, have plenty of gender-neutral terms. Introducing new terms, resurrecting old ones, or just using words we’ve always used, doesn’t need to create social drama or political warfare. No grammar drama is necessary. Language changes and the world still manages to stay on its axis.
*- For the language nerds out there, the “Y” in Ye is actually not the letter Y. It is an approximation of the now-defunct English alphabet letter thorn (Þ). Thorn is a phoneme sometimes pronounced like the th sound in “the” and sometimes like the th sound in “thick.” Thorn originated in the runic alphabet and was used in Old and Middle English. The printing press was imported into England in the 1470’s from Belgium and the Netherlands, countries whose native alphabets did not include thorn. The closest approximation that the printer’s types had to thorn was the letter y. So Ye Olde English is actually “The Old English.”