#88: So Who’s Your Quarter Cousin?

88.1  I spent a lot of time this week surfing the web, looking for quarter cousins…found mentions both recent and antique…mostly from the UK or Australia…but also some from the US, which isn’t unexpected considering we share…nominally anyway…a common language. What I didn’t find was a clear-cut definition of what relationship the term is meant to refer to. And since it isn’t an “official” genealogical term, that’s not surprising either.

88.2  But let’s back up a moment, and get on firm footing with the word “half.” In English it has 2 distinct meanings…it can mean literally 50%, as in half a gallon…or approximately that much, as in half a banana. But it can also mean “partially” or “not fully”…as in I was only half-joking. This runs parallel to our use of the prefix “semi-“…a semi-circle is exactly one half of a circle…whereas if you were half-joking, it can be said you were semi-serious. Consider the difference between semi-annual and semi-automatic…or half-Italian and half-cocked.


88.3  And if I might digress a bit, what makes English such a rich language is the fact that while its basic roots are Germanic, it enjoys a healthy infusion of Latin, as in semi-…Greek, as in hemi-…and French, thanks to the Norman Invasion, as in demi-…each of these means “half.” You have words like hemisphere, demitasse, and of course the progressively more fleeting family of musical notes shown above. These latter concoctions arose in England during the Renaissance…American English prefers to use the mathematical fractions. And while I’m thinking of it, “half-ass” is not just a colorful way of describing someone or something that isn’t “all there”…it’s also the formal name of a large equid that was judged different enough from the common donkey to be considered not fully one…with some features that more resembled a horse, it was only “half” as ass…and that’s the Onager or Asiatic (formerly Persian) Wild Ass, Equus Hemiones.

88.4  At any rate, in modern kinship terminology, “half” means literally 50%…a half-brother shares with you 1 out of 2 parents, not the 2 out of 2 you’d share with a full brother. And while it seems strange to say your full brother is your “double half-brother”…or half-brother on your father’s side and half-brother on your mother’s side…that really is what’s going on, and this is an important concept when it extends to half-cousins, half-uncles, etc. Needless to say, the Coefficients of Relationship bear this out mathematically…½ for brother, half that or 1/4 for half-brother…1/8 for 1st cousin, half that or 1/16 for half-1st cousin, and so on. On the other hand, the older use of “half,” still prevalent in some parts of the UK, does not mean literally 50%, but rather “not fully.” After all, if “half cousin” means your 2nd cousin, that’s a CR of 1/32, which is not half of the CR with a 1st cousin, 1/8. Here, half simply means “further along the family tree collaterally.” And thus “quarter cousin” would suggest “further along still,” or 3rd cousin.

88.5   All neat and tidy, if that were the usage we find…except we don’t…for example…

88.6  Now had this helpful nudnik simply stopped after “your half-2nd cousin,” there would have been some sense to it, altho not the same sense as we were just describing. In this case, your half-cousin, or more precisely half-1st cousin, would be half-way between 1st and 2nd cousin, thus quarter cousin would be half-way between 2nd and 3rd cousin, or half-2nd cousin. Unfortunately, they then go on to give an example that completely contradicts this…instead, they think a 2nd cousin is a 1st cousin once removed, that is, the son of your first cousin…and the half- would then be an incorrect synonym for step-, in the sense of by or thru marriage. Oops and double oops…well, throw that one in the Biz Bag…

88.7   Our next example is interesting…it comes from the US…Spanish Fork is sure enough in Utah. And Girl’s Special Agent is excited that she looks like her quarter cousin. But who is GSA’s quarter cousin? She describes it as a Conan Relative, along the lines of “brother’s sister’s cousin’s sister”…

88.8   …or specifically here, “half-brother’s half-cousin.” At the top of Chart 305,  we see the typical W-shape you get with half-siblings when using a Parental Tree diagram…I have assumed that YOU and 1/2B have the same father and different mothers. Now what does it mean for your half-brother to have a half-cousin, and we’ll assume that’s a half-1st cousin? It means that 1/2B and 1/2C have parents who themselves are half-siblings…so for 1/2B, that would involve either his mother (Chart 305 bottom left)  or his father (Chart 305 bottom right.)

88.9  If it’s thru the mothers, then YOU and 1/2C are not related by blood at all…the fact that there’s a “family” resemblance, as GSA said in shape of the face and eyes, is purely coincidental. This could well be, altho I get the feeling she is saying that they are related…since 1/2C is being described as “her” quarter cousin. So it must be thru the fathers, bottom right of Chart 305. Trouble is, in this scenario, 1/2C is simply a half-cousin to YOU as well as a half-cousin to 1/2B. Looked at from 1/2C’s point of view, both YOU and 1/2B are the children of 1/2C’s mother’s half-brother, and this is true whether YOU and 1/2B have the same mothers or not.

88.10  GSA’s mistake is a common one…thinking that the link between herself and 1/2C must be different than that between her half-brother and 1/2C…since she is not a sibling, but a half-sibling to 1/2B. But the truth is, whether GSA and 1/2B were full siblings or half-siblings, their relationship would be the same to 1/2C…that is, half-cousin. In Chart 305,  whether YOU and 1/2B have the same mothers or different mothers is irrelevant to 1/2C…what is relevant is, both YOU and 1/2B have a father who is a half-sibling to 1/2C’s mother, and that makes them both 1/2C’s half-cousins.

88.11  This is the principle of interchangeability…for example, from your 2nd cousin’s point of view…you, your siblings, and your 1st cousins are all 2nd cousins to your 2nd cousin. The relationships within one branch of the family have no significance when comparing between 2 different branches…they are interchangeable. And of course it expands from there…to your 3rd cousin…you, your siblings, your 1st cousins, and your 2nd cousins…are all 3rd cousins.

88.12  Bottom line: GSA’s half-brother’s half-cousin is either no relation at all to her…or else her half-cousin as well…thinking 1/2C is “further along”…hence not a half-cousin but a quarter cousin is wrong. But the sad part for us is, we therefore don’t really know what GSA has in mind for a “quarter cousin”…the person she identified as such is in fact her half-cousin. Of course, this is assuming GSA knows what a half-cousin is in the first place…maybe she doesn’t! In which case, all we really can say is, she’s heard of “quarter cousins.”

88.13  Our third citation is of no help either…I include it only as a prime example of the way people take wild guesses when they really don’t know what they’re talking about…the technical term is “flailing about.”

88.14  What we have in Chart 306 is this: if “brother” and “wife” had a child, this child would be YOU’s 1st cousin…thru “brother.” But this child would also have 1st cousins thru its mother, “wife”…and that’s what “daughter” is…no relation at all to YOU. Why even guess “quarter cousin” in the first place? Perhaps under the mistaken impression that your blood uncle’s wife is somehow a step-relation to you, and step- is the same as half-…and “daughter” is sort of one step over from this “half,” so that makes her a “quarter.”  But I’m just guessing…it’s impossible to tell what’s in HazBazz’ mind.

88.15  So where do we stand? Well, it seems fair to say that “quarter cousin” derives linguistically from “half-cousin.” And so it would depend on what the “half-” means…and there we have 3 choices:

As we saw last week, (2) and (3) are obsolete meanings of “half-“, albeit still defined that way by the Oxford’s English Dictionary, and sure enough, that usage lingers in the UK. But to take a stab at it…

88.16   And as a matter of fact, one of my older citations…from 1888, The Kinship of men: an argument from pedigrees; or, Genealogy viewed as a science, a book written by Henry Kendall, favors choice (3)…

Notice he is calling half- and quarter-cousins what we would call cousins once, twice, etc. removed…that is, descendants of our numbered cousins. But careful! He also says such things as this:

So a quarter-brother means a quarter of a brother, in terms of degree of relationship…does that mean a  quarter cousin is a quarter of a cousin? Thats 1/8 divided by 4, or 1/32…i.e. a 2nd cousin…which, alas, isn’t one of our 3 choices…it’s getting worse, not better, isn’t it?

88.17  But hold on a minute…speaking of older sources, what’s the OED have to say about all of this quarter cousin business? Cliffhanger!  Back next week…  


Copyright © 2012 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved


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