Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Avuncular Anchorman

In the outpouring of remembrances since the passing of Walter Cronkite on Friday, two polysyllabic words beginning with "a" have proved to be inextricably linked to "the most trusted man in America": avuncular and anchorman. It's hard to describe Mr. Cronkite without using one or the other, or preferably both.

First, anchorman: Cronkite was not just an anchorman; he was the anchorman in the eyes of many Americans. In fact, it's often said that the term was invented just for him. In an article on Slate over the weekend, I had the opportunity to investigate this common assertion. Long story short: it's a bit overblown to claim (as many old hands at CBS News do) that the word anchorman was coined specifically for Cronkite. You could take things all the way back (as the Oxford English Dictionary does) to the Anglo-Saxon of a millennium ago, when ancor-man meant the fellow on a ship who was in charge of the anchor. Or you could look at pre-television precedents in sports like relay racing. Even in the television era, anchorman was being applied to key figures on panel shows (both quiz panels and news panels) before Cronkite made his big splash.

This, of course, takes nothing away from the significance of Cronkite in the history of broadcast news. Starting with the his crucial work for CBS in the network's telecast of the presidential nominating conventions of 1952, Cronkite made the term anchorman his own, in the now-accepted sense given in the Visual Thesaurus: "a television reporter who coordinates a broadcast to which several correspondents contribute." After the conventions, he played the same role for election night in November '52, and ten years later he solidified his hold on the term as he took over the "anchor desk" for CBS Evening News.

As Cronkite narrated the signal events of the day, he brought a personal touch: memorably choking up on that sad day in 1963 when President Kennedy was pronounced dead, and just as memorably exulting at the Apollo 11 moon landing forty years ago today with, "Man on the moon! Oh boy!" His warm, comforting delivery was swiftly recognized as avuncular: "like an uncle in kindness or indulgence." He was "Uncle Walter" to many who had never met him but felt a familial connection as the evening news was beamed into America's living rooms. No surprise, then, that Google News turns up nearly 500 articles in the few days since Cronkite's passing that describe him as avuncular.

Avuncular isn't a word that gets used very often, except when there's a need to describe someone like Cronkite. In English, the word dates to the early 19th century: the earliest use I know of is by the parodist James Smith in an 1823 installment of his epistolary series "Grimm's Ghost," wherein an uncle tells his nephew that he takes "an avuncular interest in all that concerns you." It must have sounded like a playfully stuffy Latinism at the time, drawing as it does from the Latin word avunculus meaning "mother's brother." (Latin for "father's brother" is patruus.)

Interestingly enough, while avuncular crossed into mainstream English usage, no corresponding adjective referring to aunts has ever caught on. One can say auntly on the model of motherly and fatherly, though that word doesn't show up very often (which is more than one can say for uncly or uncley). There is, in fact, a Latinate equivalent for avuncular, but it's exceedingly rare: materteral. (That's from Latin matertera, "mother's sister," not to be confused with amita, "father's sister.") Coincidentally, the first recorded usage of materteral is also from 1823, in the Monthly Review, the very same magazine where avuncular made its appearance. Materteral, however, has never been recognized as anything more than a jocular counterpart for avuncular.

The imbalance betwen avuncular and materteral is reminiscent of another mismatch of kinship-related terms. In English, uxorious means "excessively fond of one's wife" (from Latin uxor "wife"). So what do you call a woman who is excessively fond of her husband? The dramatist George Chapman invented a word for this in a 1607 play: maritorious (from Latin maritus "husband"). But Chapman was just using it to set up a pun: "Dames maritorious, ne'er were meritorious." It might say something about conventional gender roles that avuncular and uxorious are accepted words but not their feminine equivalents.

In any case, let's continue to celebrate Uncle Walter's avuncularity, which long served as the anchor for uncertain times.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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