Nepotism — and Bob’s your uncle!

Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump / Wikimedia Commons

Do you know where the word nepotism comes from?

It describes the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends — especially by giving them jobs and plum positions.

Originally, nepotism referred to something a little more specific: the practice by popes of bestowing privileges on their ‘nephews’ — many of whom weren’t actually nephews at all, but rather their illegitimate sons. It comes from nepote, “nephew,” from the Latin nepotem, meaning “grandson” or “nephew.”

From the Middle Ages until the late 17th century, some Catholic popes and bishops — who had taken vows of chastity and therefore had no legitimate offspring — gave their nephews (either real or euphemistic) positions of preference that were usually passed by father to son. Several popes elevated their nephews and other relatives to the cardinalate, often helping to perpetuate a papal “dynasty” as a result. Pope Callixtus III, head of the Borgia family, made two of his nephews cardinals; one of them, Rodrigo, used his position to ascend to the papacy, becoming Pope Alexander VI. Alexander then elevated Alessandro Farnese, his mistress’s brother, to cardinal; Farnese would go on to become Pope Paul III. And it didn’t stop with Paul III: he appointed two of his nephews, aged 14 and 16, to the cardinalate. This original form of nepotism was finally reined in when Pope Innocent XII issued the edict Romanum decet Pontificem in 1692. This papal bull prohibited popes from bestowing estates, offices or revenues on any relative, although it did allow for just one qualified relation (but only one) to be elevated to cardinal.

The more general practice continues into the 21st century — in our own back yard and beyond. Not necessarily among popes, but certainly among clowns and politicians.

On a related note, the British expression “Bob’s your uncle” is thought by some to have originated when Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, promoted his nephew, Arthur Balfour, to the esteemed post of Chief Secretary for Ireland, which was widely seen as an act of nepotism. (However, there are other theories about how this most British of Britishisms came about, some of which are laid out in this earlier Glossophilia post, Glosso’s advent: Baubles of Britishisms – Dec 24.)


Hat tip to Rachel for the inside info on nepotism …