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Aunts and Uncles, Brothers and Sisters

Question: Dear Teacher Joe, I hope you can help me find a word that is not in my dictionary. My father's elder brother married a woman from Australia. Now she is coming to China, but I don't know what to call her in English. In Chinese, we say "bomu" which means "auntie". I want to know how to correctly talk to her. ~ from Tom Wang, Beijing

Answer: Hello Tom Wang. In Chinese, there are many words for "auntie". For example, you can say "bomu" for the wife of your father's elder brother, or you can say "shenmu" for the wife of your father's younger brother, or you can say "jiumu" for the wife of your mother's brother. However, in English, there is only one word, "aunt", sometimes said as "auntie" in informal situations.

In my life, I have never had to refer to an aunt according to her age or who she is married to. In most western languages, we just don't think about such differences. It's the same for "uncle", "brother" or "sister", too. So, you can just call your father's brother's wife "Auntie", or you can use "Aunt" plus her given name. For example, you could call her Aunt Pollyanna or Aunt Suzette or whatever.

Please be careful though. Even though words such as "aunt" and "uncle" are very broad, they still must be used precisely. In China, you might call a cousin or very close friend your "brother", or you might call your mother's friend your "aunt". In English, we never do this. Your aunt is only your parents' sister or the wife of your parents' brother. In the same way, your brother or sister is ONLY someone who has the same parents as you. Using these words incorrectly can lead to big misunderstandings. If you do have a friend or cousin who is especially close to you, instead of "brother" or "sister", you can say that person is "like a brother to me" or "like a sister to me". An older person can be "like an aunt to me" or "like an uncle to me".

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