Pearls Before Swine is one of my favorite comic strips, and this past Saturday’s strip got me thinking about the different ways and reasons we say “aunt.” (Take a moment to read the strip and then come back).
The way we say the word “aunt” depends in large part on where we grow up. Many of us (and I’m talking about the United States, primarily) pronounce it like the insect “ant.” There are others who say it like “ahnt” to rhyme with the way many of us say the word “daunt.” Others say it in a way that sounds almost like the word “ain’t.”
I found a cool map showing regional differences of how we say the word “aunt” that those of you who are word geeks (like me) might enjoy seeing.
Of the women I interviewed (all of whom have at least some connection with the southern United States), here’s the break down of how they say the word:
- 18% say the word like “ahnt”
- 9% say the word like “ain’t”
- 73% say the word like “ant”
- All of them pronounced the word like “ant” at some point during our conversation, possibly a reflection of the way I was saying it.
- One women also spoke of “aunties,” pronounced like “ahnties”
Fortunately, as Goat points out to Pig in the comic strip, we’re not all shooting each other over this difference in how we say “aunt.”
Aside from the differences in how we say the word, there are also varying reasons for why we use the word. It seems that not all “aunts” are created equal, and the ways we use the word are as varied as the women who are our “aunts” or “aunties.”
We have aunts in our family tree, but some of us also have aunts next door to us, women who aren’t related to us but for whom we feel a close bond. There are also other social “aunts,” typically close friends of our parents when we’re growing up who take a special interest in us and make us feel important.
A northern “aunt” = a southern “Ms.”
I’m a southern girl through and through, but perhaps because my mom was from the north, I grew up calling my next-door neighbors Aunt and Uncle So-and-So. Aunt Aileen and Uncle Linwood lived on one side. Aunt Primm lived across the street (and made the best pecan pies you’ve ever tasted). Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Betty lived on the other side of us. None of these were relatives, but I grew up referring to my closest neighbors that way. For almost every other adult in my life (with the exception of my parents’ closest friends), I learned to say Mr. or Mrs. along with the person’s last name.
In the south these days, it’s much more common for children to refer to their neighbors as Ms. or Mr. with their first name. Most of my friends tell their children to call me Ms. Hope, though a few of my closest friends have kids who have grown up calling me “Aunt Hope,” even though we’re not biologically related. This is a naming that I treasure, whether it’s from my nephews or from friends’ children, because it suggests the special bond and connection I have forged with these children.
It’s not something forced, though. That would feel awful to me. And there are plenty of children I adore who will grow up calling me Hope or Ms. Hope, and I’ll love them the same as if they called me aunt. Even the children who grew up calling me their aunt outgrow that and simply call me by my first name once they’re old enough to sort out that I’m not a biological aunt.
A term of respect
One of the women I interviewed comes from the Ghanaian culture. She had aunts (biological) and aunties (by marriage or socially). “You would never call an older woman by her first name. And all of my father’s brothers’ wives, I called ‘Auntie,’ never ‘Aunt.’ Any woman I met who was older than me who wasn’t my grandmother was going to be ‘Auntie’ something. That was just the way of being referenced.”
She mentioned that this term of “aunt” or “auntie” for older women is also prevalent in African American culture, especially in smaller, tight-knit communities where family lines tend to blur and any woman can correct a wayward child for misbehaving or feed a friend of her own children.
How do you say “good aunt”?
So, yes, I think Pig in the comic strip has gone overboard with his fears about the different ways we say aunt. And I think the different ways we use the word simply indicate what a vibrant and ever-changing culture we live in.
What are your experiences with this word? I’d love to know how you say “aunt” and whether you reserve that title only for biological aunts or whether you use it for other important women in your life. What do the children in your family and neighborhood call you? (For my non-U.S. readers, I’d love to know the aunt/auntie designation in your language and whether it’s reserved only for biological relationships or other women, too.) And just for a little extra fun, if you feel like including where you grew up, we could have our own sociolinguistic mapping of the word “aunt” and its uses.