stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Victor aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 22 09:10:40 UTC 2009

I find the term "stepgrandparents" fascinating not because there is
anything wrong with it, but because it has a built-in ambiguity similar
to brother-in-law. Is the brother-in-law a brother of the spouse or the
spouse of a sister? Is a stepgrandmother a mother of a stepparent or a
stepmother of a parent? (or a stepmother of a stepparent? ;-)

There are 490,000 raw hits for stepgrandmother and more than twice that
for stepgrandparent.

In any case, the word came up today because of an Obama story in NYT. (A
Portrait of Change)


Very few are wealthy, and some — like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother
who only recently got electricity and running water in her metal-roofed
shack — are quite poor.

Turns out that the ambiguity is easily resolved in this particular
case--but not the way a friend expected when I asked.


A Palisades Park family’s unlikely meeting with President-elect Barack
Obama’s step-grandmother in Kenya last month had its roots a year
earlier in a crowded hockey arena in Manchester, N.H.
Sarah Hussein Oyango Obama, who is about 86, was the third wife of
Obama’s grandfather, but the president-elect calls her his grandmother.
“Mama Sarah,” as she is known, lives in Kogelo, a tiny village in
western Kenya. Her sparse tin-roofed house has no electricity or running

Never mind that NYT seems to imply that "Mama Sarah" got electricity and
running water in the past month, if not this week. (The Bergen Record
story ran Jan. 14.)

I don't know if this is of any linguistic interest, but *I* am
interested in other possible cases of similar ambiguity. In fact, I have
more than a passing interest in typology of such structural ambiguities.
(E.g., "cousin", "parent" and "spouse" would be trivial examples of a
different type; "brother-in-law" would be of the same type.) Any ideas?


PS: Note that these ambiguities are language/culture specific and
notoriously do not translate well (which is a good reason to analyze
this--try to run Google Translate on "she is your cousin" into Russian,
then ask a native speaker to verify).

The American Dialect Society -

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