22 November 2007

F.A.M.I.L.Y. or famulus?

My recent post about a spam email quiz turned my thoughts to some of the other junk in my inbox that floods in from well-meaning acquaintances, specifically relatives who can’t resist forwarding “adorable” jokes and uplifting stories. You know the type.

The uplifting tale belong to an email genre that Snopes calls “glurge.” They define this onomatopoeic word as “the sending of inspirational (often supposedly ‘true’) tales that conceal much darker meanings than the uplifting moral lessons they purport to offer, and that undermine their messages by fabricating and distorting historical fact in the guise of offering a ‘true story.’ ”

One example always pops into my head, “The F.A.M.I.L.Y. story.” It has various guises, but each version I have encountered features a loving parental figure explaining to a contentious child the importance of family with this statement: “Do you know what family means? It means Father And Mother, I Love You.”

Sweet, huh?

(You in the back, stop gagging.)

Whoever wrote this glurge in the primordial days probably knew this wasn’t true, and that the noun “family” was not any sort of acronym. But he or she couldn’t resist the cute way the letters formed into a heart-warming affirmation of love.

If the original author knew the real origin of the word “family,” he or she would have never approached the subject. Because, as Snopes’s definition of glurge predicts, there’s a darker meaning that peeks through.

“Family” comes from the Latin word familia, which means “family” in a broader sense than the way we use the word today. It doesn’t denote people related through blood or marriage, but a household. To the ancient Romans, the original speakers of Latin, a household included slaves. The Latin word for household slave is famulus, which is where familia comes from.

Not a pretty truth: “family” ultimately derives from a word for “slave.”

But truth is always much more interesting than glurge. A cute acronym can't cut the way that genuine etymology does.