Cousins, part 2

Sometimes when I’m talking about my extended family, people express confusion at how many cousins I have. I have learned, in the course of these conversations, that a lot of people don’t know what the anthropological definition of a cousin is, and how many different types there are.

For a long time I was confused, as well. I had been told while growing up that my cousin, Sheila, who is the youngest child of one of my grandmother’s younger brothers, and was near my age, was a second cousin. I had also been told that the children of my mom’s cousin (themselves grandchildren of my grandmother’s oldest brother) were second cousins.

But only one of those is correct.

Most people, when asked, will usually define a cousin as “it’s like when your father has a brother, and your father’s brother has kids, those kids are your cousins.” That is correct, but is a little convoluted. And doesn’t help one understand the difference between a second cousin or a first cousin once-removed.

So, the anthropological definition of a cousin is: a person, other than a sibling, who shares at least one ancestor. A first cousin (which is what most people mean when they say “cousin”) is a person, other than a sibling with whom you share one or more grandparents. A second cousin is a person, other than a sibling, with whom you share one or more great-grandparents.

The once-removed part means that it is a cousin who is not of the same generation of descent from the common ancestor. So, for instance, the cousin I mentioned at the beginning, the daughter of my grandmother’s brother, is a first cousin once-removed. We are both descended from my Great-grandma S.J., but while S.J. is my great-grandmother, she is Sheila’s grandmother. So we are one generation out of synch. Her children are my second cousins. And if those second cousins have children, they would be my second cousins once-removed.

If that confuses you, I’ve barely gotten started.

What’s the difference between a half-cousin and a semi-cousin, for instance. Now, semi- as a prefix can mean “half” so you might think the terms are interchangeable. They refer to two difference relationships.

My Great-grandma I. married fairly young, as was common back then. She and her husband had two sons. Then her husband died. She remarried. She had several more children, the youngest of which was my Grandma P. Grandma grew up, married, and had several children, one of whom was my Mom. Grandma’s oldest brother (who was a half-brother), also married and had several children. Those children and Grandma’s children share a grandparent, making them first cousins, but because they only share one grandparent, rather than two, they could also be referred to as half-cousins (just as the previous generation are half-siblings).

My parents divorced with I was in my early teens, and he remarried. Thus I have a half-sister. My mom’s sister has several kids. The children of my mom’s sister are my first cousins, but they aren’t related by blood to my half-sister, but most everyone would agree that she falls into the definition of family. It would be even more strongly felt if we had all grown up together. So, a person who is a half-sibling of your cousin, but isn’t related by blood is sometimes referred to as a semi-cousin.

Feeling brave enough to take a guess as to what the term demi-cousin means? Demi- can also mean “half” but it doesn’t have anything to do with half-siblings.

A demi-cousin is a person, other than a sibling or half-sibling, who shares a grandparent with your cousin, but does not share a grandparent with you.

I think this one is easiest to understand if we return to the common informal definition of cousin. My mom’s sister has three children. They are all my first cousins. We share a pair of grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa P. My mom’s sister’s husband had a brother. And the brother had some children, and they are first cousins to the children of my mom’s sister. They share a pair of grandparents with my three first cousins, but that pair of grandparents are people they call Grandma and Grandpa H. I am not related by blood to the children of my mom’s sister’s husband’s brother… yet they are related by blood to my mom’s sister’s children, who are related by blood to me. So sometimes that relationship is referred to as demi-cousins.

Step-cousin is fairly straightforward, it is used to refer to someone who is a stepbrother or stepsister of a cousin. It is also used to refer to the niece or nephew of your own step-parent.

Then, of course, we have parallel cousins: a child of a parent’s same-sex sibling. And a cross cousin: the child of a parent’s opposite sex sibling.

Is your mind reeling, yet? Well, you better take a sip of a fortifying drink and buckle your seatbelt, but because we haven’t yet tackled double-cousins.

A double-cousin is someone, other than a sibling, with whom you share both sets of grandparents. In other words, imagine two brothers, James and John. James falls in love with a girl named Sue, who has a sister named Sarah. James and Sue get married, and during the course of all those social events leading up to the wedding, John finds himself falling for Sarah, so they get married. The children of James and Sue are first cousins to the children of John and Sarah, but they are cousins on both sides, therefore they are double-cousins.

That last one may sound too unlikely to contemplate, but hang onto your hat: during the 17th and 18th Centuries in England (and a ways into the 19th Century), it was thought extremely lucky to get married to a double-cousin. And it wasn’t just in England. That particular relationship has, at one time or another, figured prominently in the folklore of most cultures.

First cousin marriages weren’t just common for much of history, they were actually encouraged (I will get into why this isn’t as bad a thing, genetically, as a lot of people believe, in a subsequent post). In some cultures, parallel cousin marriages were considered off-limits, while cross-cousin marriages were not. On the other hand, some cultures considered father’s side parallel cousins particularly lucky or blessed, but not others.

I don’t have any double-cousins myself, but I did grow up living near and often going to school with: first cousins, second cousins, first-cousins once-removed, semi-cousins, half-cousins, step-cousins, and a dizzying number of demi-cousins.

Some of my demi-cousins called my Grandma P “Grandma.” Some of my second cousins called her “Aunt Gert”-as did some of the demi-cousins. Most of the demi-cousins all around referred to my step-cousins’ grandmother as “Nana.”

And generally, we just told friends and acquaintances we were cousins, and dispensed with all the demis, semis, and so forth. We might have said that it was simpler than trying to explain. I think sometimes we would forget exactly how we were related. My grandma would simply shrug and say, “We’re all just family.”

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

4 responses to “Cousins, part 2”

  1. Margaret Dean says :

    Some of this I remember from my Kinship course back in college…

    • fontfolly says :

      You were the person who pointed me to a resource on the matter back in the days before Wikipedia, as a matter of fact.

      It’s your fault I know all this stuff, now!


  2. Ann Fontaine says :

    I like the native american definition – all children of your parents and their siblings are your brothers or sisters. Everyone else can be a cousin.

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