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Pronounced /ˈfæmɪlɪ/Help with pronunciation

The Church of England’s Children’s Society recently redefined what it means by the word family as: “An emotionally supportive network of adults and children, some of whom live together or have lived together”. Many people will find this wording surprisingly liberal and progressive for a body that’s usually thought of as conservative. But it actually takes the word back towards one of its earlier senses.

The word family came into English in the fifteenth century. Its root lies in the Latin word famulus, “servant”. The first meaning in English was close to our modern word “household” — a group of individuals living under one roof that included blood relations and servants. It could even refer solely to the set of servants in a household, a usage still current in the eighteenth century (“to take someone into one’s family” could mean that the person concerned was employed as a servant).

It was soon extended to mean those descended, or claiming descent, from a common ancestor, a house, as we might still refer today to “the house of Windsor” for the whole kin group of the present British royal family. It might also describe an even wider grouping of a whole people conceived as having similarly descended from a common ancestor.

At the time of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611, family still had these connotations. In some places in that work the word was used in a way equivalent to tribe. For example in Genesis, we have “By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations”. If the Authorised Version wanted to refer to our modern sense of a relationship between parents and children it had to use “near kin”.

The shift in sense of family from “household, including servants” to “near kin” seems to have taken place quite gradually during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and not to have been complete until the early nineteenth century. The change was a consequence of social evolution in Britain, which began to divide the household, with servants coming to be regarded as a distinct and separate group.

It’s been argued that the change in meaning was a consequence of the rise of the middle class and so was intimately linked to property. But it probably also results from a slowly developing physical and organisational separation between a man’s domestic affairs and those of his business or occupation, a distinction that was effectively complete only in the early years of the nineteenth century. It was a characteristic that was most noticeable among the new wage-earning groups of the lower middle and working classes, and may account for the survival of the separate sense of “lineage” among the upper classes.

The early history of family can be appreciated by looking at the related adjective familiar, which originally meant that someone was of one’s own household, someone closely associated or a servant. There was once a pair of phrases, familiar angel and familiar devil (which led to that odd noun familiar, “a demon or evil spirit supposed to come when called”) that retained this idea of a servant relationship. Our surviving sense of familiar still has no implication of blood relationship about it.

So the Society is only amending the sense of family to mean something closer to our modern term extended family, and at the same time is returning the word nearer to its original one of “household”. The more things change, it seems, the more things stay the same.

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Page created 06 Jun 1998