Q: I don’t know if this is a question that has an answer, but here goes. Why does English have the female “niece” and the male “nephew,” but only the unisex “cousin”?
A: English does have a word for a female cousin, “cousiness,” but it’s quite rare. We’ve found only two modern standard dictionaries with entries for it—the subscription-based Merriam Webster Unabridged and its more accessible cousin, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Both define it as “a female cousin : kinswoman.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has examples for the term dating back to the 14th century. The OED defines it as “a female cousin” but says the sense of “a kinswoman” is “obsolete.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Romance of William of Palerne (circa 1350), also known as William and the Werewolf, an anonymous Middle English translation of the French tale Guillaume de Palerme (c. 1200):
“Þer-for, curteise cosynes, for loue of crist in heuene, / Kiþe nouȝ þi kindenes” (“Therefore, courteous cousiness, for love of Christ in heaven, / Make known now thy Kindness”).
The dictionary’s next citation is from the Wycliffe bible of 1382: “Loo! Elizabeth, thi cosyness, and sche hath conceyued a sone in hir elde” (“And behold, Elizabeth, thy cousiness, she hath conceived a son in her old age”). From Luke 1:36.
As we’ve said, the word isn’t seen much these days. The most recent OED citation is from an 1889 collection of fiction by the pseudonymous “F. Pigot.”
In “The Story of a Return Ticket,” the narrator thinks he’s originated the term: “He had the bad taste not to care for his cousinesses, if I may coin a word which is much wanted.”
Here’s a later example that we found in The Two Mrs. Abbotts, a 1943 novel by the Scottish writer D. E. Stevenson: “ ‘Jerry is my cousiness, then,’ declared Fay. ‘She’s my cousiness and I love her.’ ”
Why, you ask, is “cousin” generally used for both sexes in modern English, while “niece” and “nephew” are gendered?
Unlike other Germanic languages, English is now essentially gender free. Although “cousin” is gendered in modern German (der Cousin and die Cousine), it’s unisex in English. However, gender used to play a more important role in English, and vestiges of it have survived—hence, “niece” and “nephew.”
Interestingly, “cousin” was often used in the past to mean a niece or a nephew, a now obsolete sense that the OED defines as a “collateral relative more distant than a brother or sister; a kinsman or kinswoman, a relative; formerly very frequently applied to a nephew or niece.”
The earliest example in the dictionary for this sense is from Sir Beues of Hamtoun (c. 1320), a metrical romance about the legendary English hero Bevis of Hampton. Here Sir Bevis meets his uncle, the bishop of Cologne:
“The beschop was glad afin / And seide: ‘Wolkome, leve cosin!’ ” (“The bishop was altogether glad / And said: ‘Welcome, dear cousin!’ ”) We’ve expanded part of the citation.
The dictionary has a dozen more examples for this sense, dating up to the mid-18th century. Here’s one from Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, believed written at the end of the 16th century: “How now brother, where is my cosen your sonne.” And here’s one from Clarissa, a 1747 novel by Samuel Richardson: “Cousin Harlowe, said my aunt Hervey, allow me to say.”
However, “cousin” meant the same as it does today when it first showed up in Middle English in the late 1200s: the “son or daughter of (one’s) uncle or aunt,” which the OED describes as the “strict modern sense.”
English borrowed the noun from the Old French cusin or cosin, but the word ultimately comes from the classical Latin consobrīnus, the child of the sister of one’s mother.
The earliest English example in the OED is from The South English Legendary (c. 1290), a collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures:
“Huy weren ore louerdes cosines” (“They were our lord’s cousins”). The citation refers to the children of half-sisters. It’s based on a medieval belief that the Virgin Mary’s mother had three daughters with three husbands, so the children of the daughters would be cousins.
As for “nephew” and “niece,” both appeared in Middle English around 1300, borrowed from Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and Old French, but ultimately derived from the Latin words nepōs (grandson, male descendant, or prodigal) and neptis (granddaughter or female descendant).
The two words, as well as their counterparts in many other languages, are traceable ultimately to an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as nepto, meaning grandson or nephew (the feminine form was nepti). This root is also the ancestor of our word “nepotism.”
In English, according to the OED, “niece” and “nephew” originally meant the same as they do now: the daughter or son of one’s brother, sister, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law.
The earliest OED examples for both terms are from Arthurian legends recorded in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early Britain written around 1300, perhaps as early as 1297. (There are many other versions of the two legends cited.)
In the “nephew” citation, King Arthur has just won a battle in France and is preparing to march on Rome when he learns that during his absence from England his nephew Mordred has seized Arthur’s wife and his crown:
“Þo was þe king arþure vol of sorwe & sore … / Ac to awreke him of is luþer neueu his herte bar alre best” (“King Arthur was then full of sorrow and misery … / But his heart bore it all best so he could take vengeance on his treacherous nephew”). In the ensuing battle, Mordred is killed and Arthur is mortally wounded.
In the “niece” citation, King Arthur is in Brittany and learns that a monstrous giant has come from Spain and kidnapped his niece Elaine, daughter of his cousin, Howel of Brittany:
“Þe … geaunt … Out of þe lond of spayne come & adde ynome eleyne Þat was so vair, þe kinges nece howel of brutayne” (“The … giant … out of the land of Spain had come and seized Elaine that was so fair, the king’s niece Howel of Brittany”). Arthur arrives too late to save his niece, but he kills the giant in a bloody battle.
Over the years, “nephew” and “niece” were also used to designate grandsons and granddaughters, male and female descendants, and, euphemistically, illegitimate sons and daughters (especially those of popes and other churchmen who were theoretically chaste).
Getting back to your question, the noun “cousin” isn’t unique among kinship words in English. It’s one of many unisex terms, including “child,” “in-law,” “parent,” “kin,” “relation,” “relative,” “sibling,” and “spouse.”
Most of those have common gendered equivalents: the phrase “three children,” for example, could be expressed by gender as “two girls and a boy,” “two sons and a daughter,” “three boys,” and so on. But “three cousins” would have to be expressed as “two female cousins and one male cousin,” “two female cousins and a male,” “three female cousins,” etc.
Although English has a huge lexicon, it’s weak on kinship terms. As Joanna Rubery explains in an Aug. 30, 2013, post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, “English is sometimes irritatingly vague when it comes to kinship terminology, even within fairly close family relationships.
“I can’t tell (without more context) if your brother-in-law is your sister’s husband or your husband’s brother,” she writes. “We can say, for example, ‘aunt-by-marriage’ or ‘paternal grandfather,’ but those precise terms aren’t common in everyday speech. We accord our parents’ siblings and our siblings’ children special status (uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces) but beyond that we rely on a single catch-all term which is mysteriously ambiguous when it comes to age, sex, degree, or side of the family: cousin.”
Rubery, a former online editor for Oxford Dictionaries, notes that it wasn’t always like this: “Old English (spoken in England until about 1150) had several phrases to describe first cousin relationships more precisely, among them fæderan sunu for father’s brother’s son, and mōdrigan sunu for mother’s sister’s son. These phrases soon died out in Middle English.”
Anthropologists, she writes, “have identified at least ten different kinship systems in use around the world.” The simplest is the Hawaiian system, which “makes no distinction between siblings and cousins,” while the most complex, the Sudanese system, “has a different name for each individual on the family tree. There are different words for aunt and uncle depending on whether they are related by blood or marriage; specific terms for in-laws depending on age; and different words for grandchildren depending on lineage.”
In Chinese, she says, “our simple cousin can be translated in at least eight different ways, not just according to whether the cousin is male or female, but also whether they are on the father’s or mother’s side, and whether they are older or younger than the speaker.”
Her conclusion: “Perhaps our generic word cousin is quite handy, after all.”