One of the pleasures of the A to Z is, for me, to dive again in Raymond Williams’ Keywords, a source of inspiration and learning. The simplest words reveal their history, the meanings given to them in the past, by people like us, our older neighbours, perhaps our ancestors. On Family Williams wrote:
“Family has an especially significant social history. It came into English in the 14-15th century, from Latin familia – household – and famulus – servant. The associated adjective familiar appears to be somewhat earlier in common use, and its range of meanings reminds us of the range of meanings which were predominant in family before the 17th century. There is the direct sense of the Latin household, either in the sense of a group of servants or a group of blood-relations and servants living together in one house. Familiar related to this, in phrases like familiar angel, familiar devil and the later noun familiar, where the sense is of being associated with or serving someone. There is also the common 15 and 16th century phrase familiar enemy, to indicate an enemy within one’s household, ‘within the gates’, and thence by extension an enemy within one’s own people. But the strongest early senses of familiar were those which are still current in modern English: on terms of friendship or intimate with someone (cf. ‘don’t be too familiar’); well known, well used to or habitual (cf. ‘familiar in his mouth as household words’, Henry V). These uses came from the experience of people living together in a household, in close relations with each other and well used to each other’s way. They do not, and familiar still does not, relate to the sense of blood-group.
Family was then extended, from at least the 15th century, to describe not a household but what was significantly called a house, in the sense of a particular lineage or kin-group, ordinarily by descent from a common ancestor. This sense was extended to indicate a people or group of peoples, again with a sense of specific descent from an ancestor; also to a particular religious sense, itself associated with previous social meanings, as in ‘the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named’ (Ephesians, 3:14, 15). Family in the Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) was restricted to these wide senses: either a large kin-group, often virtually equivalent to tribe (Genesis 10:5; 12:3; Jeremiah 1:15; 31:1; Ezekiel 20:32) or the kin-group of a common father: ‘and then shall he (a brother) depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return’ (Leviticus 25:41). The 16 and 17th century sect of the Family of Love or Familists is interesting in that it drew the sense of a large group, but made this open and voluntary through love.
In none of the pre-17th century senses, therefore, can we find the distinctive modern sense of a small group confined to immediate blood relations…”
Image: Marc Chagall Paris Landscape, 1978