It’s all relative: Nobody except us knows what a 1st cousin once removed is

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You’re walking in the woods. No one is around and your phone is dead. Out of the corner of your eyes you see them: your first cousin once removed.

They’re following you, about 30 feet back. They get down on all fours and break into a sprint. They’re gaining on you! Your first cousin once removed.

You may think you know who your first cousin once removed is, but based on the convoluted system that denotes the names of family relations, they’re probably not who you think they are.

We recently discovered who this mystery relation is. It’s your first cousin’s child. It’s also the great-grandchild of your grandparent who is also not your kid, niece or nephew. Or, and stick with us here, the grandchild of your great-grandparent who isn’t your parent.

You’re dying to know more. So, a second cousin is your parent’s first cousin’s child. (They technically share a generation with you, but usually end up being weirdly older.)

Which brings us to our main point of contention: titles should reflect generational differences. Why are first cousins many years older than us and first cousins once removed our age? Why did some second cousins just pop out of a womb, while others have begun talking retirement? How could a nomenclature system let this happen? It’s absurd!

A partial understanding about why this ridiculous nomenclature exists required significant research through databases that, unless you’re a student at an accredited university, cost oodles of money to access.

Our research suggests that this system could matter to you if you’re a queen leading a country into war and you just married a duke whose second cousin once removed has a militia. You could suddenly have access to those vast armies.

But honestly, even that’s unlikely. Why would your second cousin once removed through marriage even want to loan you the militias?

Maybe your categorization as a first cousin could garner you a title above “commoner” or “plebeian,” Perhaps, even, you could rise to the ranks of duke or duchess.

You may notice that both of these potential uses have to do with monarchical or even feudal lines of ownership and succession.

But even in that case, these lines and titles “may be waived if political considerations make it necessary,” according to Patricia H. Fleming’s “The Politics of Marriage Among Non-Catholic European Royalty.” These considerations could include such transgressions as marrying an unsavory character, converting to a blasphemous religion or engaging in alliances with evil itself.  

Historically, nobody has cared about those rules unless in relation to heirs closer to the throne.

And nowadays, nobody even knows what these terms mean. If the whole point is to give a name to a relation so you don’t have to explain the relationship, it’s completely failed.

Isn’t the whole point of words to help people communicate and understand? These words — second cousin, third cousin — mean nothing and require explanations of their own. This system is arcane and inane.

To understand what we’re saying when we introduce you to our first cousin once removed, you’d have to have the below chart on hand at all times, like some sort of Rosetta Stone. And you don’t, do you?

We need relationship nomenclature reform lest the entire English language go down as outdated. What do you think happened to Latin? They let some things slide and suddenly people were speaking French, Italian, Spanish. English is anything but concise and clear-cut, but surely it can do better than this.

We dream of a world where we can look our distant relatives in their eyes and know who they are without looking at charts. We dream of a future when we can boldly walk into any family reunion without sweaty anxiety over the ambiguity of our relationships to the people in our own family.  

A cousin is a cousin, and our language needs to reflect the fact that at the end of the day, it’s all relative.

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Dani Sundell is the creative director and Karim Doumar is the editor in chief and president. Contact them at [email protected] and [email protected] and follow the copy desk on Twitter @dailycalnight.

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  • MondegreenMom

    I’m a little concerned now… that I know what a 2nd cousin is and who my 2nd cousins, and 1st cousins once removed, are.

    In practice you may call your family members whatever you want, unless it involves legal or genetic matters where it makes a difference. My siblings and I were relieved to learn early that our parents were only 4th cousins…