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Words to Describe Family Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 20, 2011

Words to Describe Family

This study guide focuses on words about families, and illustrates many of the complications that arise once we try to define something as simple as my family.

How many people are in your family?

      Did you include your pets?
      Did you count your cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents?
      Are you a member of a blended family?
      Have you ever been to a family reunion?

At first glance, we often assume that we know the meaning of a word. For instance, the meaning of the word family seems pretty straightforward. But if you hesitated before answering any of the questions above, you know that defining a simple word like family isn't easy!

Don't most people assume that a family is the people we live with? But what about grandparents, who usually don't live with us? And what about cousins, who may live across the country or even on another continent? And what about distant relatives we've never met but whose connection to us can be traced by bloodlines? And what if we're the children of divorced and remarried parents? Suddenly, definitions are not so simple.

Anthropologists have devoted decades to studying various cultures and the many ways they define family relationships. For example, in China, there are different words for older brother and younger brother. But in traditional Hawaiian families, there are only two categories: parent and child. Thus, a child refers to all the females of the parents' generation as mother and all the males as father. All brothers and male cousins are called brother, and all sisters and female cousins are known as sister. Furthermore, in many Spanish-speaking families, the word mama is used to describe any female, regardless of the family relationship.

Following is a list of words referring to families and their various relationships. Knowing these words will definitely increase your word power, and may help you think about your own family in new and interesting ways.

Words About Families

1. ancestor. A person from whom one is descended, especially if more remote than a grandparent. Our ancestors who lived two or three generations ago were much smaller in both height and weight, as were those who lived millions of years before.
2. descendant. A person, animal, or plant that comes from a specific ancestor. We can even use the word in relation to nonliving things. The automobile is the descendant of the horse-and-buggy.
3. dynasty. A sequence of rulers from the same family, such as the Ming Dynasty in Chinese history, or a family notable for a particular quality, such as wealth. The Adams family, which contributed two presidents and several important authors to our country, can surely be termed a true American dynasty.
4. family tree. A chart showing the ancestry, descent, and relationship of all members of a family. Our family tree proves the theory of genetics: way more than half of us have red hair and green eyes.
5. genealogy. A record of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or ancestors; or the study of family histories. The Internet has provided a useful tool for individuals seeking to investigate their genealogical roots.
6. generation. Generally, the entire number of people born and living at about the same time; technically, the period of 30 years accepted as the average between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring. People call those born between 1965 and 1976 Generation X; is there a name for your generation yet?
7. kin. A group of people descended from a common ancestor or constituting a family, clan, tribe, or race; relatives collectively are called kinfolk. Gathering all her kin to her side, my great-grandmother told us the story of her arrival in America.
8. monogamy. Marriage to only one person at a time. Monogamy is not the only option; some cultures approve other ways of how marriages should be formed.
9. nuclear family. A family unit consisting of a mother, a father, and their children. A nuclear family of a mother, a father, and two kids is an idealized version of family life we often see on TV shows.
10. pedigree. An ancestral line of descent or ancestry. Our puppy's pedigree was a mystery: she had ears like a beagle and long legs like a Great Dane!
11. polygamy. The practice of having more than one spouse at a time, also called plural marriage. Although polygamy is illegal in America, it is still practiced quietly in some areas.
12. sibling. One of two or more individuals with a common parent; a brother or sister. My older brother accuses me of sibling rivalry because he's allowed to stay out later than I am.

Practice Exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Words to Describe Family Practice Exercises

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