My parents and my wife’s parents have a good relationship. It’s nice. It’s rare. And they use a word to describe each other: machatunim. We hear it a lot. My wife’s dad, at home: “I spoke to the machatunim today.” My wife’s mom, in an email to my dad: “I’m so glad we’re machatunim.” My wife and I roll our eyes at this. Here we have a classic case of secular American Jews deploying a Yiddish word as a little secret handshake, sharing their delight that both their kids married Jewish. Machatunim: The word even contains that satisfying, throat-clearing chhh—machhhh-ah-tun-um.
But there’s another, more pragmatic reason they use this word: It’s super convenient. The word means “the parents of my child’s spouse.” There’s no English equivalent, which makes describing this relationship otherwise kind of challenging. What else would they say? Co-in-laws? That barely makes sense. My parents would have to say something clunky like, “our son’s wife’s parents.” Machatunim is way better.
It’s such a useful word, in fact, that it’s worth wondering: Why doesn’t English contain a word for this very common relationship?
English actually lacks lots of familial concepts that other languages have. Consider Croatian: Ujak means an uncle on your mother’s side, and stric means an uncle on your father’s side. This kind of distinction is common around the world, but in English, we just have one word: uncle. Urdu goes deeper, with words for people three degrees away from you. Your husband’s elder brother’s wife, for example, is jethani, and your husband’s younger brother’s wife is devrani. A Pakistani friend of mine learned Urdu as a child, then picked up English by watching TV, and our vague language drove her nuts. “While watching a movie, whenever the kids said, ‘grandma’ or ‘granddad,’ I used to be like, ‘Which grandma!? Be specific!’” she tells me.
But English is highly detailed when compared with, say, many languages in the Pacific. In some cultures there, no version of words like uncle exists at all. “They work on a system of generations,” says William Foley, a linguistics professor at the University of Sydney. If your dad has brothers, you just call them all “father.”
Why so much variation? Start with this: Why do we have words for different kinds of relatives at all? “There’s a biological bedrock to it,” says Foley. Societies want to avoid incest, and they want to establish lineage so they know how property and land gets passed down. When a constellation of relatives is given titles, the people in those societies are drawing a map—this person is good for marrying, this one isn’t, these folks get my money when I die, and those folks are out of luck. There are countless ways of accomplishing this, of course, so societies just develop the words that meet their needs. Are multiple generations of a family living together, say? Then they might need more specific words to identify each other—otherwise, they’ll waste a lot of time at home yelling, “Which grandma!? Be specific!”
So let’s look at in-laws. “The relationship you have to in-laws has an awful lot to do with the mating practices and the locality practices after marriage,” Foley says. The more time someone is likely to spend with their in-laws after marriage, the more complex terms a culture is likely to have for them.
In Yiddish-speaking cultures—particularly ultra-Orthodox communities in prewar Europe—marriages are arranged, and the bride and groom only meet a few times before their wedding. “The goal is to get matched with a family that is equal to or above one's own family in terms of lineage, money, success, popularity, etc,” says Ayala Fader, an anthropology professor at Fordham University who studies Jewish ethnography. That means the in-laws are developing a relationship just as purpose-filled as the bride and groom’s. They need a word to use to refer to each other, and they got machatunim. (Yiddish isn’t the only language with a word for this. Spanish has consuegros, for example, which likely developed for different reasons.)
Here in the English-speaking world, though, we barely give a damn about whom our parents think we should date. And when we marry, we might move far away from our parents—if we haven’t already. Even dating back centuries, our culture never really paired up the in-laws. Rather, when a medieval, English-speaking woman got married, she just joined the husband’s family. “I suspect that in a society with such a strong emphasis on tribal affiliations, families would be wary of anything that might seem to muddy the integrity of their family line”—and that includes a word like machatunim, says Andrew Rabin, a professor of old English at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. “Your daughter might marry into my family, but I'd still want it to be very clear that it was my family's lineage and honor that mattered.”
But English once contained other words about the families of married couples. In early medieval society, a beef between two people could easily spark a generations-long Hatfield-and-McCoys-style feud. So, some families tried to solve things with a high-drama union: One family’s daughter or sister was married off to the other family’s son or brother, and she was called a freoðu-webbe (translation: “peace weaver”). What happened after that is a little fuzzy; the records aren’t totally clear. But Rabin says this is how it possibly went down: “Peace-weaving relationships are almost always depicted as ending in failure, often because my sister has stabbed you in the marriage bed—sorry!” And so, to keep everyone alive, a second trade was put in place: When the freoðu-webbe gave birth to a son, that son might be handed over to be raised by her brother. The boy was called a “sweostor-sunu,” which literally means “sister’s son,” but the relationship between an uncle and a sweostor-sunu is different than it is today: The uncle was a patron, godfather, even a foster father, but could also represent a threat. “In some sense, what we’re looking at resembles an exchange of hostages: My female relative goes off to live with your family, but then the son of that union is returned to be fostered by me and my family. Implicitly, if an accident happens to befall my sister, your son might end up being equally accident prone.”
Holiday gatherings must have been so fun!
So, let us all be thankful we no longer have freoðu-webbes and sweostor-sunus. Those words can die off with the traditions that necessitated them. But we still do have both sets of in-laws in our lives, and an English word for them might be nice. Then again, maybe it’s not necessary: English, after all, is a notorious word thief. Around the 12th century, we took the words niece, nephew, and cousin from French, and those words have served us well. (Before that, there was no single word for any of those types of relationships. A nephew was simply called a bróþor-dohtor, or brother’s-daughter, for example.) So why not steal another word now? Machatunim does the job. Machatunim it is. Our parents—and oh, how they’ll love to hear this—were right all along.