Podcast: Kinfolks By the Dozen

Thanksgiving and Christmas are the one time of the year we are supposed to get together with our extended family. These days, family dinners have become a gesture of defiance.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

25 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    Perhaps I’m everybody’s helper because I can donate my blood to anyone. I’m O-negative. I read that this blood type comes from the Basque region of Europe which is in the northern area of Portugal, Spain & France. This Basque region apparently has the highest number of O-negative people in the world. It is not quite known where it appeared. I don’t know how far back archeologically it was researched.

  2. Vince Cornell says:

    Growing up in Alabama, I had lots of Aunts and Uncles that weren’t actually relatives. Curious what are, if there are any, the similar tradition for Northern or Midwestern states? I know some folks just call their kind by their first names, but I can’t handle kids calling their elders in such a casual fashion. At the very least, a “Mr. Robert” or a “Ms. Veronica” can work, but just plain first names seems to imply an equality that doesn’t exist.

  3. James D. says:

    Mr. Cornell,

    I am still uncomfortable calling my elders by their first names. I still call my wife’s parents “Mr. and Mrs.” In our group of friends, we insist that the children address the parents as “Mr. and Mrs. [Surname]” Sometimes one of the parents will allow them to use “Mr. or Mrs. [first name]. ”

    I mentioned this in a post a few months back. I grew up in an ethnic Catholic culture. The Italian kids called everyone their “cousins.” This could mean actual cousins (even second, third or more remote) or children their age whose parents were good friends with their parents and were in no way blood relatives. Everyone else I knew (Irish, Polish, other Eastern Europeans, etc.) had cousins who were actual first cousins or in some cases second cousins, but that was as far as the “cousin” designation went.

  4. Dot says:

    The city where I grew up in MA in one of the oldest cities in the country. It was a town in 1639 and a city in 1864. The city was divided into sections of different ethnic groups. I think it just happened that way. It was further divided into the length of time a family lived there. New immigrants tended to cluster in an area where there were a greater number of new immigrants. People who had lived in the city for a while lived in a different section of the city. So you had new and old French, Polish, Portuguese who clustered in certain areas of town. The English and Irish were spread throughout the central city. We always called our elders by Mr. or Mrs. So & So. or Miss surname if she wasn’t married. I think if a woman is married she should be a Mrs. not Ms. Likewise, I am widowed and want addresses to me to be, as it should be, Mrs. and not Ms.

  5. Jacob Johnson says:

    Whenever my father’s old college roommate visited we would call him Uncle Mark. Dad’s side of the family had lived in Illinois for about one hundred and fifty years but moved here from Kentucky and Virginia. My parents always insisted we call adults Mr. or Mrs. but half of time the adults would say something like “Please, call me Steve.” Formality is often interpreted as aggression.

  6. Dot says:

    I’d like to make a correction. When mail is sent to me it is usually addressed simply with my first name or with Ms. My sister-in- law and the church uses Mrs. on the envelope. Children in the neighborhood call me Miss Dot. I think Ms. became popular during the feminist movement.

    I lived in a two tenement house. My grandparents, my mother’s parents, lived on the first floor and my parents, brother and I lived upstairs. Growing up in my home, I always greeted my grandparents with a greeting in Portuguese that meant a blessing. They always answered in kind. It was a mark of respect.

  7. Dominick D says:

    Growing up we addressed everyone as Mr/Mrs Surname. When I had children and started hearing Mr/Ms FirstName I thought it was a new-fangled thing, but I have come to realize that it was probably pretty common when I was a kid and maybe even before I was born. All of my friends used last names, so none of this first name business ever would have occurred to me. We were military, though, and so possibly living in a bubble.
    The Mr/Ms FirstName thing is really irritating unless maybe when the addressee is a teenage camp counselor. If first name is going to be the order, then why try to be formal? That said, I agree with Mr. Johnson about the perception toward formality sometimes. There are cases where I let Mr/Mrs/Miss FirstName slide with my own children for that reason. I also agree with (Mrs.) Dot regarding the loss of “Miss”, but anymore asking an unfamiliar woman, “Miss?” like in an old movie is probably a ticket to the clink.

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The “Mr. Domiick” address is very common in some parts of the rural South as an intermediate term between Mr. D and Dom. When I was a headmaster, the students called me Dr Fleming in school-I would have preferred Mr.–but their parents, if I knew them social at all–called me Dr. Tom and may wife Miz Gail. It’s a nice custom but only in the places where it is a polite custom.

  9. Jacob Johnson says:

    I hear Mr.Fistname quite a lot in daily life among people who know each other casually. I remember too, as a child in restaurants, my mother whispering to my father to address the waitress miss and not ma’am, as it could be interpreted as an assumption of lack of innocence.

  10. Dominick D says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    Not being a native Southerner, I was unaware of that custom. In my ignorance I just assumed it was the fruit of modern degeneracy. Thank you for the clarification.
    Indirectly, you have raised another point. Cowards who hide behind initials may hardly pretend to formality. I will change my screen name so that it is clear; “Dom” being just fine in this medium.

  11. Dom says:

    Mr. Johnson,
    The waitress scenario is interesting. I would like to think that defaulting to “Miss” would be like a grocery clerk asking for ID to ring up some wine. But who knows anymore? Maybe we should just address everybody as “associate”: “Associate, there is a fly in my soup!”

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    In France, the custom used to be to addressed any mature, not necessarily old, woman as “madame” as a mark of respect, and such a tradition lingers in some parts of America where women beyond a certain age–early 20’s perhaps?–are routinely ma’am, though the term implies madame. I’m am sure everyone who reads this will have had the experience of addressing an older man as Mr. Smith, only to be told, “Mr. Smith’s my father. Call me Bill.” Today, of course it would be “Call me Justin” or Jason or Jeremy or Sean.

  13. Vince Cornell says:

    Where does the old English term “Marm” come from? I hear that a lot in the Aubrey/Maturin stories. An English derivative of “madame”?

    Being both raised in the South and ex-military, “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am” are wired deeply within my psyche.

    Mr. FirstName or Ms. FirstName always seemed to inhabit a space in between close family and formal acquaintance, although some folks just have the type of name that lends itself to that type of address.

  14. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, from Madame, a variant pronunciation we preserve in American English in the word schoolmarm.

  15. Roger McGrath says:

    For Vince Cornell: I was probably 6 or 7 when I began realizing that several of my “aunts” were actually my mother’s long-time, close, dear friends. They continued to be Aunt this or that forever. When I was very young, I didn’t begin to know the difference because Mom had six sisters (and four brothers). I think using “aunt” in that manner was fairly common back then–and my people were not from the sunny South but from the refrigerated far North, country Tom Fleming knows something about.

  16. Frank Brownlow says:

    Now I don’t know about girls, but in England in my childhood if you were a middle-class + boy, you were never addressed by your first name outside your family, always your second name, and letters came to you addressed to “Master So-and-So.” Then, once you were past about 16-17, your close friends would start first-naming or nick-naming you, but in the world at large you would become “Mr. So-and-so.” Then, as you moved into professional-cum-social life, you became “Dear Surname” among people who thought they really knew you, otherwise you were back to “Mr. So-and-so.” Then, approaching old age, just as in your school days, the few people who really knew you would start using your first name. When my old professor Kenneth Muir, the great Shakespearean, finally addressed me as “Frank,” I just about fell over.

  17. theAlabamian says:

    I really enjoyed this podcast, and your talking about kin, family, always provokes my thought in many ways. While we are talking about various words used for kinfolk, growing up I always pronounced the word “aunt” just like I pronounced the word “ain’t”. I was taught this by my family, and I only heard people pronounce it differently years later from what I recall.

  18. Robert Reavis says:

    Another aspect of kinfolk, once upon a time, was place. Homes in the country a well as significant geographical locations such as river crossings and passes were often named after the families who lived there or nearby. The old Hatley place , the Hollis bridge etc. and certainly not by their new world 911 addresses such as 1607 north 330 rd.
    Even today what Southern rural people mean by “my country” is totally different than what is meant by a singular reference to the U.S.A. Usually it is meant to refer to a county or surrounding counties and parishes of a small geographical region of their own state.

  19. Gregory Fogg says:

    The title, of course, brings a Hank Williams song to mind. I have indeed been blessed with kinfolk by the dozen. My parents gave me a younger sister and four younger brothers. We had aunts, uncles and cousins aplenty. My father had an older half-sister and a younger brother. My maternal grandfather Walden had eleven children, as did his younger brother. Of those twenty-two, two are left. My Aunt Betty Jo will be 96 in January and my cousin Wayne, who has the same birthday, will be 94. My maternal grandmother, maiden name Young, had two brothers and two sisters living in our little home town. My grandfather Fogg was the second of nine children. His father-in-law, my great-grandfather Brewer( I knew him, as he died when I was 18) was the second of twelve children. The Brewers and the Waldens both moved to the Ozarks from Lee County, Virginia in the 1850’s, the Brewers to Barry County, Missouri, where I was raised, and the Waldens to adjacent Benton County, Arkansas. As far as I know the families had no connection until my parents married. The Brewers, Waldens and Youngs are Scotch-Irish who’ve been here since the mid 1700’s. It looks like the Foggs were yankees who moved to New Hampshire in the mid 1600’s, my great-grandfather Fogg moving to Barry County from southern Indiana. There’s a little graveyard out in the country in Barry County that contains the graves of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother Fogg, all nine of their children, both my parents, my father’s brother and one of my brothers. In addition my tombstone, as well as my sister’s, are already in place.

  20. Robert Reavis says:

    Mr. Fogg,
    That is nice country over in Barry county. In high school I enjoyed fishing and camping over on Roaring River and can remember some rather large orchards on the drive over from Oklahoma.

  21. Gregory Fogg says:

    The graveyard I mentioned is between Roaring River and Cassville near my grandfather’s and my great-grandfather’s farms. The Brewers lived on Roaring River.

  22. Gregory Fogg says:

    The 93 year old cousin I mentioned lives between Seligman and Roaring River.

  23. Vince Cornell says:

    Thank you to Roger McGrath and Frank Brownlow. I’m curious if there’s any cultural group that doesn’t use aunt and uncle for close family friends. Probably Puritans and Wahhabis, if I had to guess. I know nick-names were also a very strong part of our family naming process. My great-grandmother was known as Baby Grandma because one of her great-grandchildren realized she was smaller than his Grandma so she must have been a Baby Grandma. Another Uncle was always called Uncle Cap because Cap was his nickname (he always wore a ballcap). Those were actual relatives, though. We did have an Aunt Dee who was no blood relation at all and wound up living with us for a long while in her later years. Godparents were also usually called Aunt firstname and Uncle firstname.
    The British system sounds so much more organized than the American hodgepodge. Curious how much of that still exists today.

  24. Jacob Johnson says:

    To Dom, I asked my mother about the waitress scenario and she said that it was something her parents told her and may have been in one of the old Emily Post books. When asked if miss was the default for all women she said no but the key was her age, if looked younger than you, calling her ma’am may have been seen as an insulting insinuation you thought she was older than she was. My father was also and army brat marinaded in sir and ma’am so he always disagreed with this.