Are you and your sibling inseparable?
The word sibling is made up of two parts: the first part, ‘sib’, was once used an adjective to describe a blood relationship and can be found in the first written records, including Beowulf. It was also used as a noun from the 13th century onwards and appears in the historical novel Harold, the last of the Saxon kings. It’s here Edward Bulwer-Lytton writes: “She is sibbe to Githa, wife of Godwin” (1848). In the second part of the word sibling is the ‘ling’ suffix. When this suffix is attached to an adjective it means ‘a person or thing that has the quality denoted by the adjective.’ So, if you take the Old English adjective ‘déor’, which meant ‘dear’, and add ‘ling’ you have déorling or, as we now say, ‘darling’.
Speaking of siblings, then, some famous examples might include the oh-so glamorous Joan Collins and her equally glamorous sibling who passed away last week, Jackie Collins. William and Harry, of course. David and Ed Milliband, for a bit of sibling rivalry. Going back in time, we had the Wright brothers in the world of aviation and for more siblings of the literary world we had the Brontë sisters.
But there is one pair of siblings from the 19th century with a fantastic and curious story that could teach us all something about brotherly or sisterly love: they were the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker. Born in the Kingdom of Siam in 1811, the brothers were born joined at the sternum with fused livers. They achieved such notoriety that future sets of conjoined twins would be known as ‘siamese twins’. A Scottish merchant, who saw potential in exhibiting them as part of a world tour, brought them to the US and they never returned to their homeland. After exploiting their peculiar situation to audiences, they went on to buy their own plantation, coordinated the complicated task of marrying their wives and having children, and lived a life that was, oddly-enough, normal.
Being literally inseparable from the moment they entered the world must have been profoundly comforting for Chang and Eng. As children they never had to fear the dark and as men they discovered the world together. They were siblings that depended on each other not only physically but emotionally, too. After spending a lifetime together, Chang passed away on the night of January 17, 1874 and Eng followed him around three hours later. These days, Eng could have been surgically separated from Chang quite easily, but would he have wanted this?
In 1883, The Encyclopædia Britannica (XVI. 765/2) contained an entry for ‘double monsters’, which stated: “From the most intelligible form of double monstrosity, like the Siamese twins, there are all grades of fantastic fusions of two individuals”. There may have been people who thought that Chang and Eng were a monster, but perhaps the brothers pitied those people who never had a sibling by their side.