Wood on Words: What’s a ‘family’? Depends on the definition

Barry Wood

The word most on my mind the past couple of weeks is “family.” A number of members of mine congregated in Portland, Maine, last weekend for the wedding of one of my sons.

The bride has six siblings, so now my family is even bigger.

We’ve heard a lot of debate about “family values” in recent years. In fact, the very definition of “family” has become a hot issue. Where you stand on it probably depends, as so many questions that divide our nation do, on whether you take a narrow view or a broad one.

The oldest definition of “family,” now considered obsolete, is “all the people living in the same house” or “household.” This reflects the word’s origin in the Latin “familia,” for “household establishment.” This Latin root is akin to the Latin “famulus,” which means “servant.” At one time, a “famulus” was “an assistant, especially of a medieval scholar or sorcerer.”

A “nuclear family,” which is not atomic-powered or radioactive, is the social unit defined as parents and the children they rear. A parent also might use “family” to mean just the children or the children and the other parent.

I’ve been thinking lately in broader terms: “a group of people related by ancestry or marriage,” also known as “relatives” or “kin.”

An even broader concept is family as a “tribe” or “clan” ­— “all those claiming descent from a common ancestor.” We also call this our “lineage.”

There also are specialized kinds of families:

“A criminal syndicate under a single leader,” typified by the Mafia.

“A commune, living in one household, especially under one head.” In this and the previous type, the family members are not necessarily actually related.

In the formal classification system for plants and animals, a family is the category above a genus but below an order.

In chemistry, a family is a group of elements having similar properties. In a way, the periodic table is a family portrait of the elements, with various families making up the vertical columns.

In linguistics, a family is made up of a parent language and the other languages and dialects descended from it.

Other fields with specifically defined families include mathematics and ecology.

There also are a number of “family” terms in general usage, including “family circle,” “family doctor,” “family leave,” “family name,” “family room,” “family style” and “family tree.”

Each of those draws on one of two meanings for “family” as an adjective. One is “of or for a family,” as in “family picnic” — any family could have a picnic.

The second meaning is where all the trouble comes from: “characteristic of or suitable for a family, especially one regarded as traditional or typical: wholesome, middle-class, etc.” This is where the term “family values” comes in.

The trick is, who gets to decide what’s “typical,” “wholesome,” “middle-class”?

I suspect that among my new extended family there is quite a variety of values. For me, that’s just the way it ought to be.

You say we don’t agree on everything? Hey, so what? We’re family.

Barry Wood is a Rockford Register Star copy editor. Contact him or read his blog at