Sunday, September 22, 2013

Apple #653: Uncles

I found out today that my uncle died.  I haven't seen him in quite a few years, but I'm having trouble thinking of much else.  When I was little, our families used to get together pretty often, especially in the summer time.  Us cousins -- there were a lot of them in that family -- would do the usual kid things, like going swimming, playing board games, playing with Legos, stuff like that.  My parents & my aunt & uncle played cards, most especially Setback.

Our two families when we got together looked something like this: lots of cousins all in one place.  Now mentally insert two sets of parents, transport this image to the 1970s, and add two dogs.
(Photo from Eating Our Way Around DFW)

Over time, my cousins came to be like a second set of brothers & sisters, and my aunt & uncle were sort of like an alternate set of parents.  Then my cousins (all older than me) got married and had children of their own, and we didn't really get together much.  But I still feel that connection with their family.

So I'm sad that my uncle died.  Sad that I didn't get to go to the funeral.  Just sad.

My uncle always had a leather chair and ottoman, similar to this. He also wore a certain kind of cologne -- no idea what it was -- but his cologne and the smell of his leather chair was the scent of my uncle.
(Photo and chair & ottoman from Decorium Furniture)

Here are some things about uncles. 

  • "Uncle" comes from the Latin avunculus, which is a diminutive meaning "little grandfather."  Some people speak with a kind of teasing ridicule about their uncles, but someone who was like a grandfather, maybe not in terms of age but in terms of connection, seems very appropriate to my uncle.
  • Among Irish Catholic families, before a child is baptized, the child's uncle is often asked to be godfather.  Depending on how old-school the family was, the uncle/godfather would be the child's go-to man for advice or help in dealing with difficult situations. 
  • The phrase "cry uncle" meaning "I give up" is one of those things that nobody's entirely sure where it came from.

You know, like when that kid Farkus from A Christmas Story used to beat them up until they said Uncle.
 (Photo from someplace on a real estate site called KISS Flipping)

  • There is some speculation that it comes from an Irish word anacol, which sounds like uncle, but means "mercy, safety, protection."  The theory is that Irish immigrants used to say anacol when they got in fights and people mis-heard them and thought they were saying uncle.  This theory is among the less-favorites, but I like it anyway, for my own reasons.  I like the connection between one's uncle and the concept of mercy and safety.
  • The more widely accepted theory is that the practice goes all the way back to Ancient Roman days, when people who were faring the worst in a fight said Patrue, mi patruissime, or "Uncle, my best uncle."
  • You might be wondering why they said patruus as opposed to avunculus.  Both words mean "uncle," but a patruus is your father's brother, while the avunculus is your mother's brother.  Since males ruled the day back then -- and often now as well -- the father's brother had higher standing than the avunculus.  So to give over to someone you're willing to call equal to your father's brother means you're giving them quite a lot of respect.
  • So I think the phrase itself provides the answer: when someone has bested you in a fight, the way to get them to stop is to acknowledge that they've beaten you.  To admit, however much you may not want to, that they're better (at least in this fight) than you are.  The short way to say this is to say, "You are like my uncle to me."
  • In The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the acronym stands for "the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. U.N.C.L.E. is an organization consisting of agents of all nationalities. It's involved in maintaining political and legal order anywhere in the world."  Sort of like the uncle of the world.

(Image from FizX Entertainment)

OK, my uncle didn't look like either of these guys.  He also didn't carry a gun like that.  But he did fight in World War II.
(Image from What Culture!)

  • Uncle Buck, the messy, inappropriate, unemployed bachelor uncle played by John Candy is another famous uncle.  Perhaps the only thing he and my uncle had in common is they both did care about the kids.  John Candy was also considered to be one of the few genuinely nice people in Hollywood. My uncle was a genuinely nice guy -- when he wasn't pulling your leg about something.
  • There's also Uncle Fester from the Addams Family, but my uncle was definitely nothing like him.  The guy who played Uncle Fester, Jackie Coogan, was more in my uncle's wheelhouse.  Coogan was a child actor in movies with Charlie Chaplin, among others.  During World War II, Coogan enlisted and served in the Air Force, where he flew troops to various campaigns, including behind Japanese lines in Burma.  For a while, he was married to Betty Grable, the actress who became the famous GI pin-up during the war.

Jackie Coogan and Spencer Tracy from, I think, The Actress, which was made in 1953.
(Photo from Classic Movie Kids)

Jackie Coogan and Betty Grable on a date in 1936.  My uncle loved to be tan.  He used to get his radio, set either to news talk radio or to a 40s jazz station, and bring it out to one of those folding lawn chairs and sit by the lake and soak up the sun.  Surprisingly, it was not skin cancer that killed him.
(Photo from flickriver)

Good-bye, Uncle Larry.  From me and Uncle Buck.
(Photo from Odios Obvios)

World Wide Words, Say (or cry) uncle
The Word Detective, Say Uncle, say uncle
Man from U.N.C.L.E. Background and History
IMDb, John Candy Trivia, Jackie Coogan


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