Recently, like in the last six months, I’ve been seeing a specific word everywhere. It’s a word that makes my skin crawl, a word that I can’t say aloud without miming a gag. No, it’s not “cicada” or “malarkey.” The word I’m talking about is “nibling.”
For those of you who have been lucky enough to have never heard the word or seen it typed out on social media — which is where most of my exposure to it has come from — allow me to explain what exactly it means. Nibling is the gender-neutral term for the child of one’s sibling. So, instead of saying “niece” or “nephew,” you can say nibling. But, should you?
Don’t get me wrong, I think gender-neutral terms are really important. Gender is a social construct and the gender binary is limiting and even damaging for so many, which is why it’s imperative to normalize gender-neutral language. And, I find the widespread preoccupation with children’s genders particularly disturbing. Why must people use #girldad or #boymom when posting about their kids online? And just how many horrific accidents have to be caused by gender reveal parties for us to realize that this obsession is actively harmful? Also, there are gender-neutral terms for nearly every other familial relationship — parent, child, cousin, sibling — so why must the niece-nephew, aunt-uncle relationship be gendered? We most certainly need a gender-neutral term for our sibling’s kids — but we don’t need it to be niblings.
Where did the word “niblings'” even come from? From my perspective, seemingly out of nowhere — but now it’s everywhere. Suddenly, my Instagram feed is filled with people using the term to talk lovingly about their sibling’s kids. Each time I see it, my brow furrows and my lip snarls in disgust. When did all these people agree that niblings — a word that conjures up mental images of tiny nubs of fungi or a nest of wriggling larvae — would be a good thing to call innocent children?
To my absolute shock, it turns out that this was decided long ago: The word nibling has actually been around since the 1950s. Merriam-Webster recently published a “Words We’re Watching” post about “siblings,” and in it, explained that Samuel E. Martin, a professor of Far Eastern linguistics at Yale University, is credited with coining the word. But why “siblings”? Well, M-W says nibling was created by combining the “-ibling” from the word “sibling” with the “n” from niece and nephew. I suppose you could also argue that the word is fitting because it’s close to niblet, which is defined as a small piece of food, and kids are small? Also, nibling is close to nibble, which is something you might feel compelled to do when faced with the adorably chunky legs of your sibling’s baby. Still, I hate it. “Nibling” is just so displeasing to my ears.
And it’s not just me. Since it was invented, the word nibling “mostly languished in linguistic obscurity for its first five decades of existence,” according to Merriam-Webster, and its recent rise in popularity has been prompted by more mainstream awareness of the need for gender-neutral language. “It is now increasingly called upon as a means to gender accuracy,” M-W writes. But couldn’t we use something else? I’m really not okay with such an icky-sounding word being the one we landed on for our beloved sibling’s precious kids.
There’s a part of me that wonders why we can’t just refer to our sibling’s kids as just that: our sibling’s kids. But, I realize that there are some drawbacks to that route as well. For one, saying “my sibling’s children” is kind of a mouthful. One of the original reasons for the word’s creation was that it is efficient — a single, inclusive term. Saying “my sibling’s kids” also feels so impersonal — the opposite of how I feel about my sibling’s kids. While the fact that I get the extreme privilege of being an aunt is all thanks to my amazing sister, with whom I am incredibly close, my relationships with each of her two kids are so special to me that I feel they deserve their own terms. I don’t want even one extraneous word between me and them when I talk about them, which is often. So must I too jump on the nibling bandwagon, since it seems to have already gained some mileage?
While contemplating this worrisome word dilemma, I asked my sister’s three-year-old for his opinion on the term “nibling.” Since he is a toddler who lives 800 miles away from me, I had to go through his mom for an answer. “He doesn’t know what to think of it,” my sister reported back to me. So, we’re no closer to figuring out whether or not he and I should give in and embrace nibling as a way to refer to our relationship. But, at least we’re on the same page about the word itself, and its recent popularity being utterly confounding.
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