Family … What’s ‘blood’ got to do with it?

Sometimes I get “writer’s block”. This seems fundamentally unfair to me because I don’t consider myself to be a writer. I think it is especially cruel for a person to succumb to an affliction for which they don’t technically qualify. I have been blocked like this before and what I find is that research often helps. Exploring the etymology of a word that I consider “key” is especially helpful. As a social worker, working in the unique area of step-parent and adult adoption, I am moved to write about the modern phenomenon of blended families which, statistically, are becoming a norm in Western culture. It occurred to me that the obvious key word is “family”. Given their use and context all words have power, but I believe that an elite group of words exists whose power is somehow fused into their jumble of consonants and vowels in a way that makes them distinctly potent. “Family” is one such word. It occurred to me that rediscovering the concept of “family”, within the very history of the word, should prove a very effective means of laying siege to my writer’s block. Armed with this approach, I assailed the etymology sites available on the Internet.

c.1400, “servants of a household,” from L. familia “household,” including relatives and servants, from famulus “servant,” of unknown origin. The classical L. sense recorded in Eng. from 1545; the main modern sense of “those connected by blood” (whether living together or not) is first attested 1667. Replaced O.E. hiwscipe. Buzzword family values first recorded 1966. Phrase in a family way “pregnant” is from 1796. Family circle is 1809; family man, one devoted to wife and children, is 1856 (earlier it meant “thief,” 1788, from family in slang sense of “the fraternity of thieves”). (

The above definition is typical of what my research revealed and which, at first glance, did not afford the epiphany that I had so desperately hoped for. “Household” from the Latin familia seemed absolutely sterile, completely devoid of any of the inspirational adjectives I had expectantly anticipated. The fact that the word’s meaning included, “relatives and servants” was troubling given the direction that I wanted to go with this topic. Things got worse! “Servant” from the Latin “famulus”? I had really been hoping for something more like, “Latin for a group of people who love, respect and would throw themselves in front of a run-a-way chariot for one another”. As the etymology traced the word “family” through history, I was further assaulted with, “the main modern sense of “those connected by blood” (whether living together or not) as first attested 1667”. It occurred to me that, “the main modern sense” was very much pointing in exactly the opposite direction to the one that I had wanted to go. Dejected, I logged off.

Over the next few days, the concepts revealed within the etymology continued to ferment in my subconscious. In my heart, the word “family” was no less powerful than it had been before I clicked onto my computer. It occurred to me that something had truly been revealed but, within my modern context, I was failing to grasp it.

I found the reference in the etymological definition to “family values” and its description as a “buzzword” to be very revealing. I would have thought that the phrase would have had a far more meaningful and pedigreed origin as opposed to the buzzy expression originating in the middle 1960’s that, admittedly, didn’t have any actual list of identifiable values associated to it. I had never stopped to think about it until now. It was clear that the fusion of two elite words like “family” and “values” were socially irresistible and sufficiently powerful to exist without requiring any factual or intellectual foundation. Although the idea itself was without substance, it proved sufficiently compelling that its repetition, particularly among political and religious groups, had eventually elevated it to the status of a generally accepted concept.

This has caused me to wonder whether or not the Ancients had it right all along, and that our modern concepts of “family” are far more subjective, limiting, and ultimately superficial than those intended by the creators of the word. The Ancients had been unrestrictive and inclusive in their approach to the concept of family, making no reference to any connection by “blood” or lineage. Their definition reflects their acknowledgement that belonging to the “familia” simply meant being a member of the household.

Perhaps, the ancient definition of family is more in harmony with the modern blended family than we, as a society, are prepared to admit.

    • An Adopted Guy
    • November 16th, 2012

    We live in different times. That’s all. Not better, not worse…just different. Different is generally confusing, even frightening. At the start, different usually means that things just don’t work very well. Everybody gets frustrated, even angry with the people responsible for changing things. ..No matter how dysfunctional those things may have been before.

    For things to be different, the rules and structures must change; but these things seldom keep pace. Instead society often clings stubbornly to status quo conventions connected like ligaments to the fossilized bones of outdated beliefs.

    Family is not about genetics, the law or even complex diagrams with coded lines linking names confined tightly within tiny, uniform text boxes. Family is not a “thing”. It doesn’t live within the cyber walls of Vital Statistics or the flat geometric art of the family tree. Family is a feeling…and it lives in the heart.

    Unfortunately, most of the existing societal structures belong to a concept of family that continues to be less relevant to a growing demographic of non-traditional family units and reflects little, if anything, of what rests in our hearts.

    I am adopted. My brother is adopted. I adopted my youngest daughter. My changing family structures have seldom reflected traditional genetically-linked relationships. I didn’t plan it that way. It’s just the way it has always been for me.

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