Provoked by the Merriam-Webster site‘s “Words We’re Watching: ‘Nibling’: An efficient word for your sibling’s kids”: some reflections on the portmanteauing that gives rise to nibling ‘niece or nephew, sibling’s child’; on “having a word for X in language L”; and on neologism and its discontents.

First, the fun. There’s a book for kids, and there’s a t-shirt for kids, too.

The bookThe Great Nibling by Darcy Nybo, illustrated by Marion Townsend (Artistic Warrior, 2022):

(#1) The book’s cover

The publisher’s blurb:

Ray is having a great day at the beach. Then his gramma tells him her sister is coming to the beach and she can’t wait to see the Great Nibling!

Ray imagines all sorts of wonderful people, places and things that could be the Great Nibling. Is it on the beach? Is it on the ocean? Is it under the ocean? Or is it magical or invisible?

Join Ray as he discovers who or what the Great Nibling really is!

The t-shirt. On the Whimsikid (Original Designs for Original Kids!) site (, a cotton kids’s tee — in white, butter. heather, garnet, and royal; the garnet tee:

(#2) From the site: “Nibling works for both nieces and nephews and it’s fun to say” — fun to say because of the homophony with the “cute” word nibbling, with an echo of scribble and kibble (and Tribble), maybe of nipple as well

And then there’s the possible contribution of the noun-forming suffix –ling; from Michael Quinion’s affixes site:

The ending has long had implications of smallness, especially when speaking of the young of animals or plants: duckling, gosling, fledgling, hatchling, oakling, spiderling, yearling. Occasionally terms are means affectionately, as in darling (Old English dēore, beloved). More commonly, the associations are negative: underling, weakling, princeling, lordling, godling.

That would allow for an analysis of nibling as nib (‘the pointed end part of a pen, which distributes the ink on the writing surface’ (NOAD)) + diminutive/derogatory –ling, so as referring to a cute little pen point (“I’m a little nibling, full of ink …”).x

The M-W site, with lots of details, and citations too.

What to Know: Nibling is a gender-neutral term used to refer to a child of one’s sibling as a replacement for “niece” or “nephew”. The word is thought to have been coined in the early 1950s, but was relatively obscure for several decades before being revived in recent years.

Are you someone who has a sibling or siblings with multiple offspring of varying genders you’d like to refer to efficiently? Would you like a single word that could apply generally to all of them, be they infants, wee ones, tween or teen ones, or even full-blown adults? Perhaps you’d appreciate a word that was something like the word sibling itself, which refers quite neatly to the other children of one’s parents, regardless of gender.

Well, we have some news: such a word exists. It’s not yet entered in our dictionaries, but it’s out there, and it’s being used with increasing frequency: nibling.

That’s right: nibling. Its ibling comes from sibling, of course, and its n comes from niece and nephew.

Origins of Nibling:The word’s coinage is widely credited to Samuel E. Martin, a professor of Far Eastern linguistics at Yale University who is better known for many things, among them developing a romanization system for transliterating Korean. The year 1951 is commonly attached to his coinage, but we’ve been unable to find the primary source information.

Nibling, however, mostly languished in linguistic obscurity for its first five decades of existence. Merriam-Webster received a letter from a writer in Blain, Pennsylvania, concerning the term in 1996, but the reply our correspondent received informed him that we had no evidence of it in use.

Increase in Use and Popularity: As the previous millennium has receded, however, nibling has started to show signs of life. We received another letter concerning the word in 2005, this time from a correspondent in Ft. Lauderdale. And evidence of the word in use began to appear in print as well, though more often on the other side of the proverbial pond:

Schoolchildren in Paulton are campaigning to get a new word into the English dictionary. They are urging friends and family to use the word ‘niblings’ instead of the phrase nieces and nephews in an attempt to earn it a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. — Chris Allen, The Bristol (UK) Post, 30 Apr. 2004

The Guardian recently published a report on a woman talking about her “auntistic” relationship with her “niblings.” You quickly realise that the words wrapped in ICs are “not real words” in the sense of existing in dictionaries (though that may change). Yet their meanings are clear: “auntistic” in the manner of an aunt; “nibling” an ingenious, gender-neutral collective term, on the model of “sibling,” for nephews and nieces. — Ruth Wajnryb, The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, 19 June 2004

In 2005, nibling was a runner-up in the New Word Challenge of the Independent on Sunday (London) newspaper, a contest run in collaboration with the good people at Collins Dictionary. The word is in fact entered in the Collins Dictionary, albeit as of 2012, and as a user-submitted term. Its “Approval Status” is “Pending Investigation.”

Examples closer to home exist as well:

In a recent column, I bemoaned the lack of a gender-neutral term for nieces and nephews. Lillian Kezerian of Hartford already has one — “niblings.” “It’s not original with me,” she writes, “and I honestly don’t remember where I first saw it. My nieces and nephews have liked it.” — Rob Kyff, The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, 23 May 2006

As the second decade of the new century comes to a close, the word continues to be more common in the UK (and elsewhere) than in the US, but it is showing some signs of increased use here as well. In 2018 the word was featured in a trivia quiz in The Toledo (Ohio) Blade: “In the world of family relationships, what is a ‘nibling’?” The answer was “a niece or nephew.”

But in British sources, the term is undeniably less mysterious:

She looked delighted to be spending time with her goddaughter Leonor, who is the daughter of her brother André Sampaio, and was born in February 2017…. her darling nibling … — no byline, The Daily Mail (UK), 4 Nov. 2018

This is how it goes for my nephews and nieces (henceforth, niblings) each Christmas morn, when my packages finally reach their grubby little paws. Issued directly from the North Pole, these are their own, personal and private letters from Santa Claus
— Séamas O’Reilly, The Observer (London), 16 Dec. 2018

If nibling has for most of its history merely puttered along, it is now moving with new purpose. While initially considered useful for its efficiency, as seen in the Séamas O’Reilly quote immediately above, it is now increasingly called upon as a means to gender accuracy:

My “nibling,” the gender-neutral term for nephew or niece, is neither male nor female, but both. — “Proud Aunt,” “Ask Amy” in The Chicago Tribune, 9 Jan. 2014

There was that benevolent look for his genderqueer “nibling” (read: gender-neutral niece or nephew). It was big-eyed and full of wonder with a smile that gave you warmth. — Joey Hood, The Nashville (Tennessee) Scene, 23 June 2016

Another [fan] suggested the term “nibling” to the singer, which is widely considered a gender-neutral term for a sibling’s child. — Chantal Da Silva, The Independent (UK), 24 July 2017

Poke around a bit on the Internet and you will find that it is popping up all over, and being embraced with pleasure. The future of nibling at this point looks pretty bright.

Note the Nashville cite from 2016, where genderqueer is glossed (inadequately) as ‘gender-neutral’. The fuller story from NOAD, bringing in the contribution of identity politics:

adj. genderqueer: denoting or relating to a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders

Now, the great convenience of niblings is that it’s a single-word covering the unwieldy coordination nephews and nieces (or the unwieldy and technical-sounding siblings’ children). But the fact that nibling is neutral as to the sex of the referent (as English cousin is) meant that it could also be used by anyone seeking to downplay the role of sexual identity in social contexts, and some feminists adopted it for that reason.

Once nibling had picked up some tinge of sexual politics, it was open to pick up a tinge of gender politics as well (some genderqueer people find it a congenial usage), and trans politics as well (because it elides cis vs. trans identity as well as sexual identity and gender identity). Looking at an assortment of recent cites for nibling that I pulled up yesterday, I see a fair number associated with one or another of these political identities, as in the Nashville cite from M-W. It might be that this is the future of nibling usage.

nibling as a portmanteau. The n– of niece / nephew + the –ibling of sibling. Mighty harsh on niece / nephew, but then the n– is the only phonological content that the two words share. In any case, nibling is a coinage so obvious that it must have been portmanteaued into use many thousands of times; over the years, a handful of people have written me to claim that they were the (original) inventor, as if the first person in the world to utter some form — how could we possibly know who that was? — wins some kind of prize.

I’ll write below about Allan Metcalf’s work on the adoption of neologisms; in the context here, Metcalf’s point is that the important thing isn’t the invention — people invent new words all the time, searching in haste for a way to express an idea they have nothing simple off the shelf for, or just enjoying the pleasures of language play — but the spread of the invention, its adoption by others in some community of speakers.

Faced with a desire for a neat and easy way to refer to ‘niece or nephew’, I probably would not have taken the rocky portmanteau road, but traveled the broad highway of compounding instead, with sibkid.

Having a word for X in language L. The purpose of the M-W piece is to assess the status of nibling with respect to Merriam-Webster dictionaries. It’s been coined, again and again, but is it in suffciently general usage to merit inclusion these dictionaries? It’s not there yet, nor is it in NOAD or AHD5, but it seems to be moving in that direction. Currently in limbo, but looking towards lexical heaven.

Some background here. First, a posting of mine on Language Log on 12/2/06 “Does anyone have a word for this? Probably not.”:

I argue that a useful interpretation of word for in language L is something like ‘ordinary-language fixed expression of some currency’ (olfesc)

In three parts: ordinary-language, fixed expression, and of some currency.

Some further context in my 7/29/09 posting “A word for it”:

The idea that everything has a name is widespread, but seriously mistaken, even if it’s understood as the claim that somewhere, at some time, someone has had a name specifically for the referent in question. If this were so, then little contests for suggesting words for things would have little point, but in fact they’re very popular, and only rarely do they unearth already existing words (even then, [those] tend to be nonce creations or expressions used only within a small circle of acquaintances).

When it turns out that there is, in some sense, a name specifically for this referent, that name is not an ordinary language expression, but a technical term in some domain, and of course it’s not widely known (otherwise, why would people be asking about it?). That means that words like aglet [‘a metal or plastic tube fixed tightly around each end of a shoelace’] are interesting in an abstract sort of way, but not of much use in daily life, outside of discussions of shoelaces, shoes, and the like — and even there, unless you’re talking to people who are experienced in this domain, you’re going to have to explain the word.

But, but, we really can’t say that either an expression is an olfesc or it isn’t; variation is everywhere, and everything is in flux. Would it be preposterous to say that nibling is ca. .63 olfesc and trending upwards? (That’s roughly my current guess: now fairly widely known, but still restricted to scattered speech communities.)

The secrets of neologistic success. The handbook here is Allan Metcalf’s Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004). The publisher’s blurb:

Have you ever aspired to gain linguistic immortality by making up a word? Many people — such famous writers as Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Dr. Seuss, along with many lesser-knowns — have coined new words that have endured. But most of the new words people put forward fail to find favor. Why are some new words adopted, while others are ignored? Allan Metcalf explores this question in his fascinating look at new-word creation.

In surveying past coinages and proposed new words, Metcalf discerns lessons for linguistic longevity. He shows us, for instance, why the humorist Gelett Burgess succeeded in contributing the words blurb and bromide to the language but failed to win anyone over to bleesh or diabob. Metcalf examines terms invented to describe political causes and social phenomena (silent majority, Gen-X), terms coined in books (edge city, Catch-22), brand names and words derived from them (aspirin, Ping-Pong), and words that derive from misunderstandings (cherry, kudo). He develops a scale for predicting the success of newly coined words and uses it to foretell which emerging words will outlast the twenty-first century. In this highly original work, Metcalf shows us how to spin syllabic straw into linguistic gold.

Brand names. With trade names / brand names, there’s a first wave of invention and spread (of the product and its name (with the tsunami of Coca-Cola — the soft drink — came the spread of Coca-Cola and Coke — the names — all over the world); and then (with generification and commonification) we get a second wave of onomastic spread (of coke ‘soft drink, esp. a cola’).

Some comments 0n the second development in my 8/10 posting “The commonification of Magic Shell”.

5 Responses to “niblings”

  1. Aric Olnes Says:

    I just used niblings yesterday for Gay Uncles Day.
    Love your li’l ditty
    🎼 I’m a little nibling, full of ink

    🌈 Today is Gay Uncles Day 🏳️‍🌈
    💚 I have 40 incredibly supportive & loving 💕niblings & great-niblings now❣️They call me Uncle A 💛
    💙 Michael & I count ourselves very lucky 🍀 to have them in our lives.❤️
    💜 Niblings: 20 (27 incl. spouses)
    Renée (Scotty), Dustin (Jenna), Lewis, Nathan (Susan), Shaun (Stacy), Nick (Madison), April (Jonathan), Tim (Alyssa), Lance, Kyle, Devyn, Jesse & Joshua, Elizabeth, Oliver, Sonya, Miranda, Mikayla, Jerrol, Payton. 🧡
    🩷 Great-Niblings: 13
    Jori, Bailey, Skyy, Natalie, Connor, Graham, Bastian, Hudson, Lucienne, Seth, Sonny, Adelyn, Rowan. 🩵

  2. georgevreilly Says:

    I’ve seen “niecephew”, a word that deserves only to be shunned.

    • Robert Coren Says:

      You’ve probably seen “niecephew” the same place that I have, namely in the postings of a mutual friend whose brother has a son and a daughter. I assumed she had coined it (and, as far as I can remember, only uses it in the plural, when referring to both kids).

  3. Michael Vnuk Says:

    Yes, various people have tried to create words for this concept in different ways. Another creation that you may find interesting is ‘niephling’, discussed at:

    To me, ‘niephling’ is a more cumbersome portmanteau than ‘nibling’, so I predict (dangerous as that is in the world of words) that ‘nibling’ will be preferred. Whether one or the other or both gains a place in major dictionaries, I’m not going to predict.

  4. Stan Carey Says:

    This is a really helpful summary. I adopted nibling as soon as I heard it, some years ago; it’s such a fun and felicitous word. Still pretty niche, though – Collins is the only major dictionary that includes it, AFAIK (it’s also in Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary), and it has very low frequency in iWeb and other large corpora. Maybe its gender-neutrality will give it a boost, as seems to have happened with themself.

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