#124: Poor Horatio!


124.1  One of my favorites moments from The Andy Griffith Show…for a little sprat, Ron Howard plays this scene pretty well. And it’s a fitting introduction to today’s topic…half!

124.2  In English, the word “half” is used in several ways…first, in the purely mathematical sense of dividing by 2, yielding 2 equal parts. Half a foot is 6 inches…50¢ is half of $1…a half-circle, or semicircle, is just that, no more, no less. Second, half can simply mean 2 pieces or parts…thus saying “give me the larger half,” while not literally correct, is plainly understood by a native speaker of English. If something has a front half and a back half, it is not assumed these parts are equal in any mathematical or even physical way.

124.3  Yet another sense of half would be composed of 2 different elements, being 2 things at the same time, or capable of being taken in 2 different ways. Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, could be said to be “half man, half machine”…again, without a precise 50/50 split being implied. Or check out this cool tune by the forgotten man of rock & roll, Nick Lowe…Half a Boy and Half a Man. Then again, if you’re “only half joking,” it means what you say can be taken in one way as a joke, but in another way as quite serious.


124.4  And finally in the loosest sense, half means partly, not fully, not completely…as when one is half asleep, half-hearted, or half crazy with worry. An amusing example is “half-ass”…which comes from the taxonomical name for the Asian Wild Ass, Equus hemionus or literally “half-donkey”…it is more horse-like than the African Wild Ass from which domesticated donkey was developed…thus the African ass was thought of as the “true ass.” But “half-ass” also came to refer to a mule, which is literally half a horse and half a donkey, owing to its parents being one of each. And God Bless Uncle Wiki, who doesn’t let us down…defining hemionus as “half-mule”…LOL…

124.5  It’s in this sense, the mathematical one, that we use “half” when speaking of kinship today…half-siblings share only half the parents that full siblings do, 1 instead of 2. Half-uncles and half-nephews derive from half-siblings…and in all these instances, your mathematical degree of relationship to a “half” is exactly half what it would be to a “full.” But there is also the now obsolete kinship use of half to mean not fully…what we would today call a “step-brother” was once called a “half-brother.” And this older usage lingers today in the confusion some people have between “step-” and “half-“.

124.6  So…I’m researching the Hatfields and McCoys, and find this, relating to Devil Anse’s grandfather Valentine Hatfield, not his brother Valentine and not his father’s 1st cousin Judge Valentine Wallace “Uncle Wall”…

half son thomas

Just when you’d thought you’d seen everything, right? Well, it turns out that in this case “half son” is simply a mistake…they meant to say “half-brother.” Now the exact details are a matter of some debate, but apparently either (A) Ephraim Hatfield married Mary Smith, daughter of Ericus Smith, and she had previously given birth to a bastard named Thomas Smith…or (B) Mary Goff married Ericus Smith and had a son named Thomas Smith, then subsequently married Ephraim Hatfield. Yes, you read that right…Ericus Smith is either Mary’s father or first husband. HOWEVER…one simple fact suggests Ericus was her father and not her husband…and that is that Ephraim and Mary named one of their sons Ericus!

124.7  But what surprised me was that despite never having heard the phrase “half son” that I could recall…and the fact that “half son” is not literally logical, since you are either the biological son of someone or you aren’t…I found “half son” sounded very natural to me in a specific context. Thus, instead of writing Joseph Sr. had 2 sons named Joseph Jr. and these sons were half-brothersI wrote Joseph Sr. had 2 half-sons named Joseph Jr.  In other words, “half son” reflects how 2 half-brothers are related to each other, thru the father they have in common. 

124.8  To simply say Joseph Sr. had 2 sons named Joseph Jr. would I think strike the average person as rather odd. More clarification would be in order, along the lines of These sons were half-brothers…or, under another set of circumstances, One of these sons died in infancy.  But it occurred to me that saying “half-sons” in the first case certainly eliminates the need for clarification. Mind you, one son, a single individual, could not be a half-son to his father…but 2 sons, half-brothers, could. OK…I’m not suggesting that “half-son” be added to the vocabulary list of English language kinship…at the same time, I wouldn’t squawk if it were. Guess I’m sort of half-suggesting…

false alarms

124.9  Still, I thought it would be fun to troll the net and see where else “half-son” pops up.  And to start with, there were several false alarms. I found the use of half as meaning a combination of 2 different things in the title of a book Half Brother, Half Son…about the close friendship of Supreme Court Justices Louis D. Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter. Then there was what looked like “hief zoon” on a Dutch census form…and somebody wondered if this meant half son. Turns out they were mistaking the handwritten “St” for a “H”…it was really “stiefzoon” or step-son. And anyway, the Dutch word for “half” is…”half”…like in the words “halfzoon” and “halfdotcher”…which everybody translates as half-son and half-daugher without saying what that  actually means…big help, thanks.


124.10  This next one…thought I was really onto something…halfs along with 1/4-grandsons and 3/4-daughters…wow! But if you look carefully at what’s going on, they’re tallying the degree to which each person listed has native blood. Notice when a half marries a full, the kids come out 3/4…and a full mother has a half daughter and a half son…obviously the father or fathers were non-natives, thus not listed.


124.11  But halfs do tend to turn up in census data…above, A is Newfoundland, B is England, C is Ireland, and D is New York State.  Now from the description in B, half-son and half-daughter are clearly steps. With C and D there’s no way to tell. And the trouble with A is, half- is used in the listings, but so is step-…as well as adopted and -in-law.


124.12  And above, 2 more halfs…but again, we’re getting nowhere fast. In the blue box are collected various ways Indian tribes referred to a Mètis…Mestizo in Spanish…someone of mixed European/Indian parentage…and half-son is one of many terms. The yellow box is from a list of Swedish kinship terms…half-sons/daughters are grouped with half-brothers/sisters…and there is a different word for steps…altho this doesn’t mean they aren’t the same thing. I struck out trying to find out what the heck they did mean by halfs…altho Swedish kinship terms as a whole are interesting, and I’ll examine them in more detail in a couple of weeks. But for now, half-sons and half-daughters remain a full mystery…I like my way of using them, but that’s just me…

124.13  Next week, we’ll look at how the 11 America Hatfields from last week are related to each other. I considered just giving my answers and leaving it at that, but I think working it thru would be instructive…and it is my blog, nez pah?

wicked ballsy

plastic 1

I always liked the saying: Go to the government for your goat, and lose your cow. With me it seems, I start out with a question, and instead of finding one answer, I end up with two questions. Maybe more poking at the Swedish kinship system will sort it all out, but for now I simply present it to you. Reading the translation above, it appears they take half-daughter and step-daughter to mean the same thing, just don’t know which to use. But then you have plastdotter which does literally translate into “plastic daughter.” My guess is this is a relatively recent term, since it’s mentioned with “bonus mom,” a syndicated columnist’s proprietary neologism for what the rest of us call your good old-fashioned step-mother.


And as you can see in these examples, the term gets used. But it means what again? The bottom one is written in English by a Swede and certainly suggests plastic means step. But in the top one, written in English by who knows who, plastic and step are clearly two different things…and I do know that in Sweden, the doll is spelled Barbie, not Barbey…so for now all I can say is…watch this space…

plastic 3


Copyright © 2013 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved


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