144.1 YOU are at fault, dear friends! It’s your bad…you as the speaker have only yourself to blame. And we as the listeners can only put the blame properly on YOU.
144.2 The one gripe I see over and over again is that our kinship system is too complicated…and when pressed for details, one example always comes out, that of “1st cousin once removed”…the criticism is made that it can mean “2 different things”…and you don’t know which of those things a person saying it means…do they mean “my parent’s 1st cousin”…or do they mean “my 1st cousin’s child”?
144.3 Here’s the cold hard truth: the English language is not to blame…you are, because you are misusing the language…you are using a genealogical term incorrectly…or in this case, incompletely. “1st cousin once removed ascending” refers to your parent’s 1st cousin…”1st cousin once removed descending” refers to your 1st cousin’s child. Precisely and exactly…no confusion, no ambiguity. True, these are relatively long, involved phrases, but in the world of genealogy, they are absolutely correct. Leave off the ascending/descending, and you are wrong…w-r-o-n-g, hence the confusion.
144.4 Because the words first, cousin, once, and removed are everyday words, used in everyday conversation, people think putting them together to refer to a relative of theirs is also everyday speech. It is not…it is the partial use of a genealogical term, and sure enough, you cannot be clearly understood when you do so…because you are making a mistake, pure and simple. What you really ought to say in everyday speech to refer to your parent’s 1st cousin is “my mother’s (or father’s) 1st cousin”…to refer to your 1st cousin’s child, say “my 1st cousin’s son (or daughter).” That’s how the English language works…these are the descriptive phrases that pinpoint the exact relative you wish to speak of.
144.5 If you want to mix genealogical terms in with everyday conversation…and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t…you can’t complain about ambiguous results if you don’t use those genealogical terms correctly…like I said, it’s your fault. If you say “she’s my 1st cousin once removed” and you are misunderstood, that’s to be expected…it’s as if you said “she’s my grand-something,” and expected the listener to know what you meant…grandmother, grandson, grand uncle, whatever…
144.6 People get hung up on the idea that there’s “no specific word for it.” So what? For example, we get along perfectly well despite the fact that there is no specific word for “the sibling of your parent”…”aunt or uncle” is the best we can do. There are languages where there is no specific word for “grandfather”…it’s either your mother’s father or your father’s father, and they get along perfectly well too. And please notice that altho there may not be a word for “the sibling of your parent”…you can talk about one of them…”my mother’s brother…or all of them…”my father’s siblings” and what you are saying is effortlessly clear.
144.7 To sum up, there are no words, phrases, or descriptions for blood relatives in the English language that are ambiguous when used correctly. None. It is always possible to make yourself utterly and completely understood. Complaining about “1st cousin once removed” makes as much sense as asking someone to “do me a favor and buy some underwear for my grandparent” then being disappointed when they bring you a bra for Gramps.
144.8 As for brothers-in-law…as we saw last week with Mel Cooley and Alan Brady on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” there is ambiguity…do we mean “wife’s brother” or “sister’s husband”? As a practical matter, we can simply say that Alan married Mel’s sister…or that Mel married Alan’s sister…problem solved. When you say “brother-in-law,” you are saying 2 people are related thru marriage…that one family “married into” the other…and that’s all. The fact that we don’t have specific words in English for wife’s brother and sister’s husband merely tells us that people can get along with out without specific words for those concepts…because you can just say “wife’s brother” or “sister’s husband” if that much detail is important.
144.9 The thing that I find interesting is the fact that such ambiguity exists at all…it means that the phrase “brother-in-law” really does refer to 2 different things…altho, and this is extremely important because it applies to “1st cousin once removed” as well, those 2 “different things” refer to either end of ONE RELATIONSHIP…that of one person marrying the sister of another person. Same thing with “1st cousin once removed”…the 1st cousin of one person is the parent of the other. In fact, one type of brother-in-law can’t exist without the other type also existing…just as there can be no father without a son, no nephew without an uncle, etc.
144.10 There is no way in English to use the phrase “brother-in-law” and at the same time indicate which of the 2 types you mean…so I will invent them…
spousal BIL = wife’s brother
fraternal BIL = sister’s husband
144.11 And naturally, these 2 new terms work equally well with all combinations of brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives, spouses and siblings…I’m doing with brothers-in-law since we started with Mel and Alan. Why spousal BIL? Because it’s a BIL you get thru your spouse…he’s your wife’s brother. You wouldn’t have him if you didn’t have a wife, or spouse. Why fraternal BIL? Because it’s a BIL you get thru your sibling…your sister’s husband. You wouldn’t have him if you didn’t have a sister, or sibling.
144.12 Are spousal BILs and fraternal BILs really 2 different things? Yes, in a number of ways. First, to have a spousal BIL, you have to be married. To have a fraternal BIL, you can be married or single. And it works the other way around: to be somebody’s fraternal BIL, you have to be married…to be somebody’s spousal BIL, you can be married or single…your BIL is the one who has to be married.
144.13 Second, consider your brother-in-law’s mother…if he’s your spousal BIL, his mother is your mother-in-law…because his mother is also his sister’s mother, and his sister is your wife. If he’s your fraternal BIL, his mother is NOT your mother-in-law…she’s your sister’s mother-in-law, but not yours.
144.14 Third, how many you get depends on who gets married. If you get married, you get as many spousal BILs as your sister has brothers…from 0 to who knows how many. If your sister gets married, you get one and only one fraternal BIL, you’re sister’s husband.
144.15 Which brings us back to Alan and Mel. Last week I suggested it was highly unlikely that Chart 502A was the case. To begin with, because most people wouldn’t consider the husbands of 2 sisters to be brother-in-law to each other. At best, A is Alan’s sister-in-law…B is Mel’s sister-in-law. But in addition, there is simply no evidence from the show that this is the case…not a hint. I suppose we could call Chart 502A “semi-spousal brothers-in-law”…perhaps “half-spousal brothers-in-law,” altho that’s awfully close to “half-brothers-in-law” which sounds like your wife’s half-brother, or your half-sister’s husband. Maybe we shouldn’t call this arrangement anything at all… 😉 😉
144.16 At least now, with our BIL definitions, we are able to deal with Chart 502B…which again there is no evidence for on the show, except for the fact that they keep switching between Mel married a Brady and Alan married a Cooley. In Chart 502B it sure looks like Mel and Alan are some sort of double brothers-in-law…or brothers-in-law in 2 ways. And with our new terminology, we now see that Mel is both a spousal and fraternal brother-in-law to Alan and vice versa…Mel is Alan’s spousal BIL because Alan married Mel’s sister X…and Mel is Alan’s fraternal BIL because Mel married Alan’s sister Y…and the other way around from Alan’s point of view. Done and doner…and I can say it that way cuz it’s my blog…sez me.
Here’s an interesting fact: complexity never seems to phase people, especially on a cultural level…they are used to it, and it isn’t complex for them. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Ides of March…and perhaps you’ve also heard that in the old Roman calendar that was the middle of the month, March 15th. True enough…but that’s just part of the convoluted way the Romans reckoned the days of the month. They counted backwards towards 3 fixed days…the Nones, the Ides, and the Kalends of the next month. January 2006 (I picked a month at random) is shown above, ancient Roman style…in shorter months, there were fewer days to the Nones…and somehow, they lived with it for hundreds of years…go figure…
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