The Grammarphobia Blog

Kissing cousins

Q: I teach English at a university in New Jersey. A student of mine insists that the son of a cousin is a cousin too. To me, the son of a cousin is a nephew, since he’s one generation down in the family tree. Could you please shed some light on this word?

A: In modern English, a cousin’s child is referred to as a first cousin once removed or a second cousin. Today such a child wouldn’t be called a niece or nephew.

Although many people refer loosely to a second cousin as simply a “cousin,” the principal meaning of “cousin” is a son or daughter of an aunt or uncle.

Cousinhood in all its ramifications is an interesting subject, though for many of us it doesn’t come up much in conversation except around Thanksgiving.

In medieval times, “cousin” didn’t have the narrow meaning it has now. In olden days, it could mean almost any relative other than a sibling or parent.

The word came into English sometime during the 1200s from the Old French cosin. But its ultimate source is the Latin word consobrinus, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology defines as “mother’s sister’s child.”

When “cousin” first showed up in English, the Oxford English Dictionary explains, it was “a collateral relative more distant than a brother or sister.” It could also mean simply “a kinsman or kinswoman, a relative.”

Consequently, the OED adds, in those days “cousin” was “very frequently applied to a nephew or niece.”

Shakespeare, for example, used “cousin” to mean a nephew in Much Ado About Nothing (1600), as when Leonato says to his brother Antonio: “How now brother, where is my cosen your sonne.”

But those uses of “cousin” are now considered obsolete, the OED says. So today, you wouldn’t refer to a niece or nephew as a “cousin.”

We can’t tell you when that old sense of “cousin” died out, but the last citation given in the OED is dated 1747.

Another sense of the word that’s obsolete today was used in legal writing from the 1400s into the 1600s, according to published references in the OED.

In this legal usage, a “cousin” was one’s next of kin, “including direct ancestors and descendants more remote than parents and children,” Oxford says.

Here’s an example the OED gives from an Act of Parliament dated 1503: ““Robert Brews Squyer Cosyn and heire unto Sir Gilbert Debenham … that is to say, sone of Elizabeth Brews Sister to the seid Sir Gilbert.” (So this “cousin” was Sir Gilbert’s next of kin, who happened in this case to be his nephew.)

The principal meaning of “cousin” today—“the son or daughter of (one’s) uncle or aunt”—showed up around 1290, not much later than the obsolete broader meaning, according to the OED.

In this example from a sermon delivered around 1380, the relationship is pretty clear: “Joon Evangelist … Crist was his cosyn, and Cristis modir was his aunte.” (“John the Evangelist … Christ was his cousin, and Christ’s mother was his aunt.”)

Later that kind of cousin was sometimes called a “first cousin.” In the mid-1600s, as the OED explains, people began adding “first,” “second,” and so on to express various degrees of cousinhood.

“Thus,” the dictionary says, “the children of brothers or sisters are first cousins to each other; the children of first cousins are second cousins to each other; and so on. The term second cousin is also loosely applied to the son or daughter of a first cousin, more exactly called a (first) cousin once removed.”

There’s yet another use of “cousin” that has nothing to do with families. As the OED says, “cousin” is sometimes used “as a term of intimacy, friendship, or familiarity.”

For example, it’s not uncommon for young children to fondly call an old friend of the family “Aunt Gracie” or “Uncle Chuck,” even though they’re not related.

The OED gives another example. In the British county of Cornwall, the dictionary says, Cornishmen call one another “cousin Jan” or “cousin Jacky.” The BBC’s website once offered a possible explanation for this Cornish tradition:

“Some say that Cornish miners became known as ‘Cousin Jacks’ because they were always asking for a job for their cousin Jack back at home. Others think it was because the miners used to address each other by the old greeting of ‘cousin,’ and Jack was the most popular Christian name in Cornwall.”

Before ending this, we should note that “nephew” and “niece” have had other meanings in the past, too.

Nowadays, as we’ve written on our blog, “nephews” and “nieces” refer to the sons and daughters of siblings.

But they once were also used for grandsons and granddaughters, male and female descendants, and, euphemistically, illegitimate sons and daughters (especially those of popes and other churchmen who were supposed to be chaste).

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