#119: Not Non-Cousins

119.1  Dear Stolf: I know you’ve ragged on Wikipedia’s “cousins” article more than once. I notice it’s changed again…any better? …from Drymk Buzgat, Thwambry, NJ

119.2  Dear Who What from Where?: Sure, I did that twice at least…#65 and #82. And you’re right, they’ve now included charts now to illustrate each type of relationship and that’s über-smart IMHO. But once you start reading the accompanying text, it’s as goofy as ever. And that’s the fatal flaw in the whole Wikigenda…that anyone at anytime can change things around, then it gets changed back, or part of it does, or…huh??? I suggest that you save the page for the charts…for future reference…because who knows how long they’ll live.

119.3  But you know what, I’m feeling especially combative this morning, so I think we’ll have another go at my favorite game, wack-a-moron. As in the past, the article’s contents will be in black italics, my comments in red.

119.4  A cousin is a relative with whom a person shares one or more common ancestor(s) (other than a parent, child/descendant, sibling, child/descendant of a sibling, or sibling of a parent/ancestor). However in common parlance, “cousin” normally specifically means “first cousin”. “Normally specifically”? Wow, that’s heap big elegant writing…puh-leez. As for the basic definition, could it get any more convoluted, which is to say, twisty? Dun’ think so. OK, so how would I define “cousin,” if I’m so smart? Well, 2 ways…first, the “common parlance” meaning, that of “first cousin”: A cousin is the child of your parent’s sibling. Careful now…implicit in the word “sibling” is full, not half…meaning your parent and his sibling have the same mother and father. This removes any tortuous reference to common ancestors…because after all, double half-1st cousins also have 2 grandparents in common, yet aren’t 1st cousins. (Naw, that isn’t “original research,” just patently obvious.) And for the life of me, I can’t understand this idea of defining something in terms of what it’s not…sheesh.

119.5  For the broader definition of “cousin,” I would go with something like this: A cousin is a relative belonging to your generation who is directly descended from the sibling of one of your direct ancestors. And again, “sibling” means full…half-cousins are something different. True, “belonging to your generation” might not be immediately clear to some folks…same with “directly descended” and “direct ancestor.” But this definition is airtight, foolproof, and TRUE! And further explanation does get into some key elements of kinship…to wit: “direct” means linked by a series of parent/child relationships…your grandfather’s uncle could be thought of as an ancestor of sorts, but not a direct one…neither is your first cousin’s grandson your direct descendant, altho he is part of a generation down from you. And then…

119.6  Systems of “degrees” and “removals” are used in the English-speaking world to describe the exact relationship between two cousins (in the broad sense) and the ancestor they have in common. Various governmental entities have established systems for legal use that can more precisely specify kinships with common ancestors existing any number of generations in the past, though common usage often eliminates the degrees and removals and refers to people with common ancestry as simply “distant cousins” or “relatives”Talk about beating around the bush, eh? But in my definition, “belonging to your generation” locks in the “degrees.” Thus your 2nd cousin is the grandchild of your grandfather’s sibling…why grandchild? Because you are the grandchild of your grandfather, and that positions you and your 2nd cousin in the same generation: 2 brothers, each has a grandchild, those grandchildren are 2nd cousins…and similarly, great grand for 3rd cousins, great great grand for 4th, etc. And of course all this mirrors the case of 2 brothers having children, and those children being 1st cousins, the “common” cousins, capeesh?

119.7  And speaking of “weasel words”…when you see something like “common usage often eliminates,” you should read that as “…and equally often does not eliminate.” Really, the tone of this opening part seems almost apologetic to those who think that degrees and removeds are “fussy,” too complicated, splitting hairs…when in fact, this is exactly how kinship is properly described in the English language. Anything that divides the world into categories can be either generalized or made more specific…there are horses, there are thoroughbreds, there are individual blood-lines, etc. Generalization leaves out information, and sometimes that’s OK. But in genealogy, pin-pointing exact relationships is crucial, and don’t you forget it. And never frickin’ apologize!

119.8  Basic definitions The ordinals in the terms “first cousins”, “second cousins”, “third cousins”, describe the “degree” of the cousin relationship. The degree of two cousins’ relationship is determined by the number of generations to their closest common ancestor. When the cousins are not the same generation, they are described as “removed”. In this case, the smaller number of generations to the common ancestor is used to determine the degree, and the difference in generations determines the number of times removed. Note that the ages of the cousins are irrelevant to the definition of the cousin relationship. “Ordinals”?…ahem. Better to say “numbers”…true, 1st, 2nd, 3rd aren’t “numbers” in the strictest sense, that of quantity or amount…but close enough…ordinals!  Otherwise, this part is correct but again needlessly wordy…and “note” that, as in my definition, they assume you understand how generations work. Face it, a definition can only do so much…I mean, what if you didn’t know what a “relative” was?

119.9  And I wish they’d gone into more detail concerning comparative ages. If your 1st cousin is an adult when you’re a child, you could very well call him “Uncle”…or if your uncle is a child when you are, he could be considered your “cousin.” Some families do it this way, others not…nothing wrong with it, as long as you remember to shift gears when you’re doing your genealogy or you’ll be sorry. Next, we move on to types of cousins and accompanying trees…the trees are fine…the explanations, not so much…

cousin example119.10   First cousins. The children of two siblings. David and Emma are first cousins because they are non-siblings who share the same grandparents in common. On the left is the diagram, and no problem there. “Children of two siblings” suggests we’re back in ancient Egypt where siblings married each other. Better: “Children whose parents are siblings.” Now saying it this way also includes the possibility of interbreeding, but that can’t be helped…and for the record, if your father is your mother’s brother, you and your siblings are 1st cousins too…and in 2 ways to boot. “Share in common” is a laugh! Either “share” or “have in common”…not both. It shows you write rottenly… 😉 😉

119.11  But the real howler here is “non-siblings.” I swear, in all my time studying this stuff…and writing a weekly blog for over 2 years…I’ve never come across this, or found the need to call any relative a non-something…I’d like you to meet my non-Aunt Margie…LOL…Still, this brings up an important point: when you try to define cousins based on common ancestors, you can very easily find that your sibling is now your cousin, since siblings share the some of the same things cousins share, ancestor-wise…hence need for the non-. The issue is “common ancestor” versus “closest common ancestor,” you see?

119.12  Second cousins.The children of two first cousins. Frank and Gwen are second cousins because they are non-first cousins who share great-grandparents in common.Third cousins.The grandchildren of two first cousins; also the children of two second cousins. Harry and Isabel are third cousins because they are non-siblings who share great-great-grandparents in common. And so on and so forth.

119.13  First cousins once removed. Two people for whom a first cousin relationship is one generation removed. The child of one’s first cousin; also the first cousin of one’s parent. Frank and his father’s first cousin, Emma, are first cousins once removed. Emphasis mine. 1C 2R and 2C 1R are defined the same way. But it’s a basic principle of rational thought and unambiguous communication that you never use the word you’re defining in the definition itself…as in, say, a horse is defined as what a baby horse grows up to be. Helpful, isn’t it?  Further, that “also” makes it sound like a 1C 1R can be one of 2 different things, when it’s really just one relationship: that of 2 people, one of whose parent is the 1st cousin of the other. There is a direct similarity to uncle/nephew, which is 2 people, one of whose parent is the sibling of the other. Difference is, with uncle/nephew the 2 generational “ends” of the relationship have different names…but see below, 119.21

119.14  Additional terms. The following is a list of less common cousin terms. In this context, “less common” is meaningless…97% is less than 98%, but you’re still an A+ student, nez pah?

119.15  Double cousins arise when two siblings of one family reproduce with two siblings of another family. The resulting children are related to each other through both of their parents, and are thus doubly related. Double first cousins share both sets of grandparents in common and have twice the degree of consanguinity of ordinary first cousins. Double second cousins can arise in two ways: from two first-cousin relationships among their parents, or from one double-first-cousin relationship between their parents. Clumsy but correct. Double Cousins of the World, Arise! And that bit about double 2nd cousins is an interesting insight…a diagram would have helped enormously. Half cousins are the children of two half siblings. Half-1st cousins, yeah…and again, doesn’t have to be with each other, sparing you the yuck factor.

119.16  Step-cousins are either stepchildren of an individual’s aunt or uncle, or nieces and nephews of one’s step-parent. A cousin-in-law is the spouse of an individual’s cousin, or the cousin of one’s spouse.  In my experience, most people don’t extend step-‘s and in-laws this far, but it’s a free country…

119.17  Maternal or Paternal cousin. A term that specifies whether one individual is a cousin of another through the mother’s side of the family (maternal) or the father’s side (paternal). If the relationship is not equally paternal for both or equally maternal for both, then the paternal cousin of one is the maternal cousin of the other. Um…so you’re saying not all cousins are equally maternal? This is really bad…seriously…

119.18  Kissing cousins are defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “relatives or friends with whom one is on close enough terms to greet with a kiss.”  There are many other “kinds” of cousins, some colloquial, some technical…why kissing cousins alone is singled out is beyond me. I could say something about the heart wanting what it wants, but that would be needlessly snarky, so I won’t…

119.19  Relationship charts.  2 are presented here, one in square grid form, the other the famous Canon Law “diamond.” Personally, I’ve never found the need for them…they are somewhat complicated, and sketching out a tree lets you compare more than just 2 relatives, and in a very plain and obvious way. But if they work for you, knock yourself out.


119.20  Mathematical definitions. There is a mathematical way to identify the degree of cousinship shared by two individuals. In the description of each individual’s relationship to the most recent common ancestor, each “great” or “grand” has a numerical value of 1. The following examples demonstrate how this is applied.

Example: If person one’s great-great-great-grandfather is person two’s grandfather, then person one’s “number” is 4 (great + great + great + grand = 4) and person two’s “number” is 1 (grand = 1). The smaller of the two numbers is the degree of cousinship. The two people in this example are first cousins. The difference between the two people’s “numbers” is the degree of removal. In this case, the two people are thrice (4 − 1 = 3) removed, making them first cousins three times removed.

Example 2: If someone’s great-great-great-grandparent (great + great + great + grand = 4) is another person’s great-great-great-grandparent (great + great + great + grand = 4), then the two people are 4th cousins. There is no degree of removal, because they are on the same generational level (4 − 4 = 0).

Example 3: If one person’s great-grandparent (great + grand = 2) is a second person’s great-great-great-great-great-grandparent (great + great + great + great + great + grand = 6), then the two are second cousins four times removed. The first person’s “number” (2) is the lower, making them second cousins. The difference between the two numbers is 4 (6 − 2 = 4), which is the degree of removal (generational difference). All this, if correct and forgive me but I don’t have the energy at this point to check, is interesting, but of little practical value, at least for me. Of more mathematical utility, believe it or not, is the simple move of considering siblings as 0th cousins, that is, cousins of degree zero. Next comes Alternative definitionsand I thought, here we go, they’re gonna elevate the common mistake of calling your 1st cousin’s son your 2nd cousin into a full-blown “alternate” system…but to their credit, they don’t. Nice move. Instead…

119.21  Asymmetric definitions. The definitions discussed in the article above are the ones found in dictionaries of standard English, but they are not universal. At least one alternative usage also exists. In this alternative system, the degree of the relationship from cousin A to cousin B is determined by the distance from A to the common ancestor and the number of times removed is the difference in generations between A to B.  Jeepers…unless I’m missing something, this is NOT an alternative system, but the self same system outlined above under the definition of removed cousins. Sometimes “upwards” or “downwards” is used to indicate the direction of this difference. For example, if A has a grandparent whose sibling is B’s parent, then B is A’s “first cousin, once removed (upwards)”, whereas A is B’s “first cousin once removed (downwards)”. Note that this is not standard terminology, and is completely absent from many major dictionaries. Which is to say, it is completely present in those major dictionaries from which it is not completely absent. Did you check any minor dictionaries? “Ascending” and “descending” is most common in genealogical circles…I’ve also seen backwards/forwards, major/minor, and even one family that went with augmented/diminished…and over the years, diminished changed into demented…now that’s funny. 

119.22  As seen in this example, this usage is asymmetric, since different terms are used to represent A’s relationship to B and B’s relationship to A. By contrast, the standard usage of “cousin” discussed in the main part of this article is symmetric (in this example, the standard terminology would be that A is B’s first cousin once removed, and B is A’s first cousin once removed), and is also dyadic (for example, one can say “A and B are first cousins once removed”). Permit me to point out you can live a long and fruitful life and never have occasion to use the word “dyadic.” Beyond that, this whole section is muddle-headed. When you are comparing generations, you want to be “asymmetric,” as in grandfather/grandson, aunt/niece, etc. But this is not an alternative system by any means…this is the only system there is in English…and simplifying it by dropping the ascending/descending part is just…well, simplifying it, not reinventing the wheel.

119.23  Colloquial usage. In day to day speech, “cousin” is often used unmodified. Normally it means a first cousin, but some people use the term “cousin” to refer to cousins of all types, such as first, second, and third cousins, as well as cousins once or more times removed. Modifier terms such as “half-cousin” or “step-cousin” are rare rarely used in everyday speech. [citation needed]  No, citation not needed…simply delete this section as spectacularly superfluous.

119.24  Usage for extremely distant relations. Although use of the word “cousin” in this context is infrequent (especially outside of evolutionary literature), any two individual organisms regardless of their respective species (or any other level of taxonomy) are in fact very distant cousins by virtue of shared descent from a single cell whose descendants survived beyond the Paleoarchean Era. OK, now they’re on drugs, that’s plain to see. Yes, and the Sky is Cousin to the Sea…and Second Cousin to the Pond. But here it ends…what a trip…well, anyhow, nice diagrams.


Copyright © 2013 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved


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