#89: Kitty Korner Kousins

89.1  It would seem like a no-brainer, nez pah? “Quarter cousin” is a colloquial term used in some parts of the UK, and the Oxford English Dictionary favors British over American usage, so just look it up! Trouble is, OED takes us in a whole other direction…because OED doesn’t think mathematical fractions have anything to do with it…

89.2  That bit about Shakespeare is from Merchant of Venice, 1596… “His maister and he, saving your worships reverence, are scarce catercosins.”  OED’s first recorded usage of “cater-cousin” is 1547…first for “quarter cousin” is 1656…supporting the idea that “quarter” is a corruption of “cater.” But then again…wait for it…some more recent sources have it the other way around…”quarter” came first, and eventually morphed into “cater.”

89.3  Most experts today distinguish between 2 definitions of catercousin…either a very distant blood relative…or a person who is not related but thought of as being as close as a relative or cousin. There is no agreement, as you can see from the OED citation, about what the “cater” part means. Today the idea of eating together or catering to one another…another old term is messfellow…is given less credence. The preferred derivation is from “catre,” an Old French form of “quatre” meaning the number 4. In this sense, we are talking about a square, the verb “to cater” meaning to place, cut, or move diagonally…hence cater-cornered, what you probably call catty-corner or kitty-corner.

89.4  And dear friends, if it strikes you as odd that the “experts” are uncertain as to the origin of this, as well as so many other English words and phrases, well, that’s just the etymological reality…this stuff gets lost in the swirl of billions upon billions of written, but mostly spoken, words…and nobody was really “paying attention.” Yes, many of the citations for “quarter cousin” I found are in the sense of a distant relative…too distant to bother to be precise, if they can truly be considered related at all. But many others clearly have some specific relationship in mind, and the move from “half” to “quarter” in a mathematical sense seems undeniable. And after much searching, I finally found 2 instances that spell out “quarter cousins” clearly…and it’s not what I expected.

89.5  Mind you, this doesn’t mean that all or even most of those who say “quarter cousin” mean it in this sense. But the first, thank goodness, is extremely credible…because is has to do with the ancestors of Myles Standish….yes, the Myles Standish…and a happy Thanksgiving to you too! Detailed family records were kept, both in England before the Mayflower trip…and after, delineating those oh-so-important “first families” of the New World. Even so, there was confusion interpreting the records, since so many individuals had similar names…but from what I understand, it’s all been sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. Chart 307  concerns individuals from the Old Country, and I don’t actually know where Myles comes in, but that’s irrelevant to our purposes.

89.6  I should mention that where you see (1) and (2), these are not meant in the usual sense of Senior/Junior or I, II, III…but are instead labels given by genealogists to keep things straight. Because as you can see, both of the 4th generation Thomases married women with the same names…what’s more, when Thomas (1) and Margaret (2) died…guess what?…Thomas (2) married Margaret (1)…nice!!!

89.7  But here’s what we were looking for, gleamed from Section (6) of this detailed commentary: “Thomas (1) and Thomas (2) […] were both great-grandsons of Sir Christopher, and therefore quarter-cousins, which in the 16th century made them close kinsmen, tied together even closer by marriages into the same local gentry families.” Well, it couldn’t be any plainer than that…except at first blush this doesn’t make sense, when we redraw Chart 307 as Chart 308  to make it easier to analyze…

89.8  But if the sons of 1st cousins are quarter-cousins, what happened to the half-cousins? My first thought was something along these lines…

89.9  …that is, we’re using fractional terminology to enumerate the contemporary or same-generation cousins…what I call “numbered cousins”… straight across the family tree horizontally. But upon further reflection, my best guess is that Chart 309 shows what’s really going on…

89.10  Remember, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “half-cousins” as 2nd cousins…and goes on to say that “2nd cousins” can mean either the sons of 1st cousins, which is what we in the modern sense consider 2nd cousins…or 1st cousins once removed, that is, one individual is the son of the 1st cousin of the other. And following the logic of the fractions, the son of your half-cousin is your quarter-cousin. (BTW, this blog is composed on an Apple, using TextEdit for the text, and Paintbrush for the images. Paintbrush only allows rotation thru 90 degree intervals…”half-cousins” in Chart 309  was accomplished with Open Office’s Draw program, which allows rotations in 5 degree intervals…in this case, it’s 30 degrees.)

89.11  And I’ll say that at least one other person agrees with this. Consider this quote from a website discussing the genealogy of a Harmon family: “So your grandfather was my great uncle and you would be my quarter cousin related at six degree[s] of consanguinity.”

Looks pretty kosher to me. So for the time being, and pending further developments, we’ll say a “quarter cousin” is what in our standard system of kinship terminology is known as a “2nd cousin”…at least in the mind of one Mayflower blue-blood genealogist. But the question then becomes, how far does this fractional cousin system extend? Using the foregoing reasoning, what we’d call a “2nd cousin once removed” would presumably be an “eighth cousin,” and a “3rd cousin” would then be a “sixteenth cousin”…or should we be saying “one eighth cousin” and “one sixteenth cousin?”

89.12  Reminds me of McDonalds Third Pounder burgers…the first time I saw that, I wondered who ate the first 2 pounds! Of course, Third Pounder doesn’t mean the third of 3 pounds…it means the fraction 1/3…or one third of one pound…but that’s not what they say, is it? And then those Uncle Wiki goofballs say this sandwich consists of “a third-pound of …” Duh…English spoken here, please…

89.13  But alas, googling “one eighth cousin” returns only a couple dozen hits, all of which refer to an 8th cousin…that’s one single 8th cousinas opposed to a whole gaggle of them…with the sole exception being a type-written transcript from an Indian Affairs hearing from the 1960s. Here the term “one-eighth cousin” is used to explain that in the Indian culture in question, no child is considered “abandoned” or without kin, even if he is only as distantly related to someone as “one-eighth cousin.” Needless to say, no indication of just what a “one-eighth cousin” actually means in this context. Perhaps they simply meant 8th cousin…altho one would think 3rd or 4th cousin would be distant enough for the point they’re making.

89.14   But if you want a weird twist…check this quote from the book The dialect of Leeds [UK] and its neighborhood  by C. Clough Robinson…

Barns are babies, and gurt-nevvy is great nephew. But what concerns us is horf-cousins, quarter-cousins, horf-quarter-cousins an’ so on. And does “an’ so on” lead to “quarter-quarter-cousins”? Trouble is, if you can have “half-quarter-cousins,” why not “half-half-cousins”?  Or maybe half-halfs are quarters? Then again, perhaps the speaker is being facetious, and just making up kinship categories to exaggerate the overflow of assembled relatives. A google search on “half quarter cousins” yielded just 3 hits…amusingly enough,  “half (quarter??) cousin” “half (quarter!?) cousin”…and “half/quarter cousin”…which I take to mean “half or quarter.”

89.15  Other bits I found include half-half-cousin from a fan fiction story based on Gone With the Wind…half-half-quarter cousin from an on-line story about Pokemon characters, altho this might have been in jest, can’t tell…then there’s the “Urban Dictionary,” founded online in 1999, with both general and ethnic slang…they define quarter brother as your half-brother’s half-brother, which is to say, one not related to you…you and your quarter brother would share a half-brother, but on different sides of his family…same goes for sisters. But like they say…after the Devil invented wind-chimes, he moved far, far away…and so, once opened, we’ll let the topic of “quarter cousins” breathe for a while…and next week, we’ll check some mail, hokay?


Copyright © 2012 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved



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