To the modern English speaker, “sibling” means “brother or sister”. I have often been asked about this word by learners of English, as it seems that it is less commonly used than its counterparts in other languages, such as Geschwister in German, or αδέλφια (adelfia) in Greek. Perhaps the reason for this lies in its history, as it is only comparatively recently that “sibling” has had the meaning that it has today.
“Sibling” was revived in the early 1900s, when it was used in anthropology and not among the general poulation as a whole, which goes some way to explain its lack of popularity in ordinary speech.
It comes from the Old English term “sibling”, which was far more generalised than “brother or sister”, and meant “relative” or “kin”. It comes from sibb, which meant “kinship, relationship” and could even be used for “love, friendship”. The Old English term came from Proto-Germanic *sebjo, which meant “blood relation, relative”. The theory is that it comes from Proto-Indo-European *swebh, which is the suffixed form of the root *swe, the pronoun for the third person (he, she) as well as being a reflexive form. So how could that come to mean “relative”? This came about through the sense of “one’s own people”.
Interestingly, the words “self” and “idiot” are also from *swe, as is the second half of the word “gossip”. “Idiot” comes to English from Greek, of course, but the Greek word traces its roots to *swe.
A number of languages seem to use the same basic word for sibling/ brother/ sister, perhaps just modifying the suffix, or some other gender indicator. This is certainly the case in Greek: αδελφός, αδελφή, αδέλφια (adelfos, adelfi, adelfia): “brother, sister, siblings”, and in Spanish: hermano, hermana, hermanos: “brother,sister, siblings”.
This brings me onto Turkish. The word kardeş is a generic word for sibling – it can mean brother/ sister or just sibling. This word has a truly fascinating etymology behind it. It was originally karindaş. This is made up of karin + daş. Karin means “tummy” or “belly” and can even by extension mean “womb”. The daş suffix means “sharer”. So literally, in Turkish a sibling is “belly-sharer” – someone who has shared your mother’s womb with you! What more succinct way to refer to a sibling?
Many thanks to CoteDAzur for her invaluable help with the Turkish.
Really interesting etymology of the word. I find English fascinating, but fearsome to lean if it’s not your first language. There are so many connotations of words and phrases and tone pays such a vital role too.
Yes, not to mention words like “quite” or “rather”, which can be positive or negative depending on how they are said! And we haven’t even touched on phrasal verbs!
The Scandinavian languages seem to mirror the English pattern but I don’t know if it is a recent development as well?
English: brother sister > sibling
Swedish: bröder systrar > syskon
Danish: brødre søstre > søskende
Norweg: bror søster > søsken
Faroese: brøður systrar > systkin
Icelandic bróðir systir > systkin
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