The Uncle Syndrome
Posted on February 19th, 2017

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando Courtesy Ceylon Today

An interesting comment made by J. Appaswamy on 18 January 2017 in the Ceylon Today, ‘Letters to the editor’ column under the title  ‘The Uncle Syndrome: Can someone enlighten me?‘ intrigued me, as I too have experienced this type of display in our modern society since returning from the UK, after living in London for over three decades. I quite agree with him when he mentioned it is common only among the Sinhala community, ‘but not among the Tamil, Muslim or Burgher communities’ (no racial bias)!

Brothers and sisters of parents are called ‘Uncle‘ or ‘Aunt‘ in English. But in Sinhala usage these terms vary as Loku Thaththa and Bappa. Aunts are referred to as Loku Amma and Punchi Amma, irrespective of the fact that they are either older or younger to you. Their children are addressed as cousins in English, but in Sinhala Aiya or Sahodaraya, which has an altogether different connotation with the socialist term ‘Sahodaraya’. This indeed is a very intricate topic, as in some societies the word ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunt’ is used as a title of respect for elders, even among friends, neighbours and acquaintances or even total strangers in a form of kinship.

The late Wijeyananda Dahanayake, the Sri Lankan politician and once Prime Minister was fondly addressed as ‘Bunis mama’ when he introduced free buns to schoolchildren as the country’s Minister of Education. Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawela invited school children to his Kandawela Estate and encouraged the young to call him Mama (uncle) to dispel the fictitious horrors about him as an ‘ogre,’ a myth created by some media wallahs stating that ‘When got up like a giant (yodaya) after consuming a dozen of egg hoppers for breakfast people surrounding him fall to the ground!’ When divorced mothers remarry, their new husbands would like the children of the previous marriage to call them ‘Uncle‘ to rid of the emotional anxieties, as neither they are their mother’s enemy nor does he take the role of the father.


In Sri Lanka it varies vastly, when an ordinary person addresses a retired doctor, professor, lecturer or other highly acclaimed person as ‘uncle.‘ Naturally, some people tend to get offended and feel insulted in such situations. This is what the present generation has transformed into unfortunately. It could well be that the addresser may not intend any insult, but does it habitually as a form of respect rather than using the Sinhala words, ‘Thamuse’, ‘Oy’ or ‘Me Unnehe,’ which tend to sound a bit crude.

The writer once experienced this ‘uncle syndrome’ in vigorous pursuit during a flight from London to Colombo via Dubai. A lot of Sri Lankan passengers embarked the plane at Dubai. They were ‘immigrant workers’ returning home. Seated in front of the writer was a Sri Lankan, an ex- British Royal Air Force (voluntary) officer travelling to Colombo. Naturally his ego had been bloated after being commissioned to work in Belfast as a ‘British soldier’ during IRA troubles in Ireland

Lessons learnt

This could be where the problem lies. Lessons learnt by the writer after settling down in Sri Lanka is that one needs to adjust to changed current behavioural patterns in our modern society before thinking of stepping into an argument with a third party. On the other hand, it is quite possible such statements come out innocently and habitually without meaning any insults to the addressee. The best would be to adjust oneself to move with the times and be part of society as the saying goes, ‘If you can’t make them join ’em’.

When someone’s ego gets hurt only one tends to fly off the handle. So, the best remedy would be to ignore such situations, if at all possible, and to practise self-assurance by composing oneself. After all, it would be impossible to mend a whole society when it has warped and corrupted to the hilt.

For those who have the experience of living in the West, it does not affect very much. I guess, whatever one’s social position is in the UK everyone is addressed by his first name irrespective of one’s position. It is a sign of modesty, but not in Sri Lanka where we still tend to have fragmented residue out of old colonial attitudes. One thing though, when our Ministers go to London, they freely mix with party members, friends and expat colleagues. They make use of their hospitality and generosity while in London, but once they get back to base will they be free and accommodative? Expatriates should be so lucky even to contact such Ministers over the telephone, leave alone any reciprocity.

Opinionated attitudes

As far as the ‘uncle syndrome’ is concerned, I personally believe that the problem lies within our own opinionated attitudes. Therefore, in order to adjust ourselves to the current changes in the Sri Lankan modern attitudes and behavioural patterns, one needs to think before one leaps. Strangely enough, everyone today leads a highly stressful life.

The French ‘Sangfroid’ is the word to evade such situations, which means you are calm and collected in stressful situations.

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3 Responses to “The Uncle Syndrome”

  1. vichara2 Says:

    The equivalent term for Úncle’ when addressing female elders is Äuntie”

  2. Nimal Says:


    I remember saying good bye to Mr W.Dahanayake at Rosmead place Uncle.I just phone my elder brother in Kandy.He said that he and my other late brother constantly called him uncle, when he tutored my two brothers when our family lived at Elliot road in Galle. He too lived close by, perhaps on the same road. He taught my two brothers at St Aloysius in Galle. I think he taught English at that school and remember speaking very good English.He spoke about his old times in Galle with our familes,prior to the war war 2 time.
    The day I met him at the PM’s home was for an inquiry where my sister inlaw who was a Bandaranayke and her mother was a Ratwatte from Mrs SWRD’s side was unjustly victimized with a deliberate transfer as a teacher to a very remote area from Kandy. This was because she was related to Mrs SWRD,though they never had contacts with them. Mr Dahanayake instructed the Education chief to have an impartial inquiry resulting in her being transferred to a closer place.
    That day Mr Chelvanayagam came to see the PM but the PM never came to see him as he had a ‘headache’.
    We had to give Chelva a lift as his driver was too scared to come there to pick him up due to unrest ragging across Colombo. I remember My brother and Mr Dahnayake berating him for his stupid act of provoking the Sinhalese by tarring the Sinhalese name boards in the North. He was stunned and speechless when My brother asked him if he was then proud of his stupid act where innocent Tamil shops were set fire by the mobs,this was when he was driven in our car towars wellawatta.. I am sure he regretted it but was too stubborn to admit it.By the way Mr SWRD spoke English impeccably and I was impressed, though I spoke much of the burgher type of English like ‘ Got and have bunhakeys Almira top bunku put and take.Younes boys is coming play the ramp pappan’ Those were the days with so little money yet we had so much fun until the amude brigade ruled us. So sad.Those were the days of Rock’n roll, everyone in the party mood in Colombo and oin the big cities. Now they are trying to have a go at big matches etc.

  3. Tilak Says:


    Nice to hear your personal contacts with W. Dahanayake and childhood memories. I met him once, while I was a schoolboy, at the Fort Railway Station where he used to travel by train to Galle. He was seated on a wooden bench at the station with other commuters and was selecting a lottery ticket (Sweep tickets we used to call them!). I became curious as I recognised him as W. Dahanayake MP. When I got close to where he seated, he called me in Sinhala, “ Mehe Enna”. I took a few steps towards him embarrassingly. Then he pointed at the man holding lottery tickets said, “ Ganna…..”. I was so shocked and could not even speak. He pulled out a ticket and gave it to me with a smile. There was no dialogue between the two of us except the two words he uttered, but the memory of his smile and spontaneous kindness, love and genoricity have ingrained in my memory indelibly. He was a real human being and a genuine politician, no doubt.

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