It’s a good thing, too, since I’ve been working with it in newspapers and radio for more than 30 years. I have come to the realization that there is, in the English language, almost always the precise word you are looking for.
There may be a slew of other words which come close to your meaning, but, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is quite large. It’s the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”
I have, however, found a few situations in English where there is no single word to express a concept – and that’s rather strange when it’s a fairly simple family relationship.
I have two sisters, both younger than me (I’m older and wiser, I say. They say I’m approaching senility that much quicker. PoTAYto, poTAHto).
There have been times in the past when someone who knows one of my sisters asks if we are related. My usual response is that I’m happy to acknowledge she’s my sister. I’m not sure how happy she would be having to acknowledge that I’m her brother.
Of course, the next frequent question is our ages. Is she older than me or not? And that’s where the problem of the missing word in the English language comes in.
Let’s say, for example, it is the sister closest to me in age. If I refer to her as ‘my older sister’, the obvious conclusion is that she’s older than me, although I am technically correct (if you will) because she is the older of my two sisters.
Similarly, if I refer to her as ‘my younger sister’, I am implying that I have an older sister as well.
I did a search online to see if there was a word, even from hundreds of years ago, that was used to express this very common relationship.
About the best anybody came up with was ‘my older little sister’ and given that all three of us are now in our 50s and 60s, I would feel strange calling either of them ‘my little sister’.
I usually end up explaining that there are three siblings and give the age chart in terms of who is older than who.
Of course, years ago, when I would in conversation mention my sisters, someone would invariably ask, “Oh, are you the oldest in the family?”
My response was usually, “No, Mom and Dad are older,” at which point most of the other people remembered urgent engagements they had to leave for immediately.