Adventures in Etymology – Nepotism

Today we’re looking into the origins of the word nepotism.


Nepotism [ˈnɛp.ə.tɪ.zəm] is:

  • The favoring of relatives or personal friends because of their relationship rather than because of their abilities.
  • Patronage bestowed or favoritism shown on the basis of family relationship, as in business and politics.

It comes from the French népotisme [ne.pɔ.tism] (nepotism), from the Italian nepotismo [ne.poˈti.zmo] (nepotism) from nepote/nipote (grandchild, nephew, niece), from the Latin nepōs (grandchild, nephew, niece, descendent), from the Proto-Italic *nepōts (grandson, nephew), from PIE *népōts (grandson, descendent) [source].

Apparently during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, popes liked to appoint relatives (especially nephews – a euphemism for their natural sons) as cardinals, and this practice became known as nepotism [source].

The word nephew comes from the same PIE root, via the Middle English nevew/neveu (nephew, grandson), the Old French neveu (nephew), and the Latin nepōs (grandson, granddaughter, nephew, niece, descendent) [source].

It displaced or absorbed the Middle English word neve [ˈnɛːv(ə)] (nephew), which came from the Old English nefa [ˈne.fɑ] (nephew, grandson, stepson), from the Proto-Germanic *nefô [ˈne.ɸɔːː] (nephew, grandson), from the PIE *népōts [source].

Incidentally, the word knave (a tricky, deceitful fellow) sounds similar but comes from a different root: from the Middle English knave/knafe [ˈknaːv(ə)] (son, boy, lad, servant, peasant), from the Old English cnafa [ˈknɑ.fɑ] (boy, lad, young man), from the Proto-Germanic *knabō/*knappō (boy), which is of unknown origin [source].

Here’s a video I made of this information:

Video made with Doodly [afflilate link].

I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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