A cousin by any other name

I’d like to take a quick, virtual poll. If you have a brother-in-law, do you refer to their wife as your sister-in-law; or a sister-in-law’s husband as your brother-in-law? I’m not certain, but I don’t think that’s the way we’re supposed to do things here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Those in-law spouses have no direct relationship to you. They are the nomenclature equivalent of an appendix, purely vestigial.

When I refer to my brother-in-law’s wife as my sister-in-law, I typically hasten to explain, “She’s not really my sister-in-law; she’s married to my husband’s brother.” This clarification can cause my husband to become impatient, and roll his eyes at me, because he’s thinking, ‘does it matter, who cares?’ But there are people who care. They’re the same people who will point out that you’ve mispronounced gorgonzola. This is a risk I’m not willing to take, hence my need for full disclosure about the relationship.

It will come as no surprise to you (you are, after all, reading my blog) that I love to tell stories. Many of them involve family members. When I introduce the characters I like to identify who they are in relation to me. I could take short-cuts and, for instance, refer to my husband’s cousin as my cousin, thereby saving two syllables, but what happens when someone asks, “Is that on your mother’s side, or your father’s?” I’d have to backtrack and explain that it wasn’t really my cousin, but my husband’s cousin. That takes a lot more syllables than the two I originally saved.

Other cultures have words for all these relationships. (Trust me on this. I remember writing a paper about it for a sociology class in college.) Why don’t we? I might not be as bothered by this if I didn’t have a child, but I do. And her relationship to my appendix of a brother-in-law’s wife is ‘niece.’ That person is her Aunt. If my daughter has a name for her relationship, why don’t I?

And while I’m on the subject, why do some parents insist that their children call me Mrs. Mintz, and others are fine with their kids calling me Judy? First of all, I’m not Mrs. Mintz. If I were any kind of Mrs., it would have to be Mrs. Kleppner, which is my husband’s last name. Since my last name is Mintz, that pretty much makes the whole Mrs. thing a non-starter. The really surprising thing is that the title ‘Ms.’ hasn’t made more inroads than it has. My daughter’s unmarried female teachers are Miss. So-and-so, not Ms. We’ve had plenty of time for Ms. to become mainstream, what’s the hold up here?

While you ponder these questions, I’m going to go research what I’m supposed to call my cousin’s children’s children. There aren’t any yet, but I want to be prepared.

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11 responses to “A cousin by any other name

  1. I think your first cousin’s children are your first cousin’s once removed and their children are your first cousin’s twice removed… But I could be wrong here… I have more relatives than I know what to do with complicated by multiple marriages. If your aunt marries a man with children do they become my step-cousins (or is it kissing cousins as they say down south). And then if your aunt divorces this man are his children now your ex-step cousins? Also what do I call my father’s step mother’s children – are they step aunts and step uncles? Are their children step cousins? I could go on but am not too confused. I’ll go weed the garden instead.

  2. I am with your husband on this one. Efficiency of conveying the idea is my goal. If it is critical to the discussion, then I might make a distinction … otherwise X-in-law will do.

  3. Your cousin’s children’s children (assuming that your cousin is your 1st cousin, genealogically speaking) are your 1st cousins twice removed. I know that because when you were writing that sociology paper in college, I was programming a family tree for a CompSci assignment (also in college) so I had to learn all this stuff.

    As for those brothers/sisters-in-law, I don’t distinguish, thereby agreeing with Mr. Kleppner.

    And as for your name, I would’ve told my kids to call you Ms. unless I absolutely knew whether your last name was yours or a married name. Or unless you told me to have them call you Judy. If it’s okay with you, then it’s okay with me.

  4. You should just say brother-in-law and sister-in-law. That’s how everyone else does it.

    I say, my husband’s cousin.

    I hate when people don’t use “Ms.” since that’s how I introduce myself. And I just correct them. When an envelope arrives with Mr. and Mrs. (my husband’s name) Milstein, I go nuts. It’s like my identity has been erased.

  5. Yeah, unfortunately, this is one of those imprecise terms. She is your sister-in-law. At the same time, while explaining that I now have a half-indian second cousin (or is it a first cousin once removed?) I generally call his mother my cousin-in-law since we are not blood related, but related through marriage. In that vein, I also have step-cousins, and whatnot.

    An easy way to look at it is that any uncle or aunt of your daughter is either your sibling or your sibling-in-law with no further precision necessary. Would every woman take her husband’s last name, this would actually more than likely be precise enough (not that you or I would ever bend 😉 ).

  6. Dear Judy;
    After reading your analysis I’m pretty sure that you are still “my niece Judy”.
    Maybe I should check with your Mom.
    Love, Uncle Howard

  7. Hi Judy. Marc has 2 brothers. All with wives. We call ourselves the “Outlaws.”

  8. I had all of these questions recently when my husband and I went to a party for my nephew. I refer to his mom as my sister-in-law too, although she’s really my husband’s s-i-l. This became important when we were the only members of my husband’s family there and I wanted to talk about the members of the other side of the family.
    I’ve recently discovered the word machetunum, my daughter’s parents-in-law. I am about to get some wonderful machetunum.
    As to what kid’s should call adults, I like how they do it in Greece. You can call someone Mr. Steve. This is reserved for people that you know but hold in some respect, usually because they are older than you. But I don’t think they have a version of Ms.

    • Mr. Steve! That’s wonderful! We have a teenager from France coming to visit in a couple of days and after reading my blog, her mom wrote me that she told her daughter, “I think if they are OK with it, the simplest thing would be to call [her] mother Judy. She was afraid it might seem rude, but I told her that in the States people were very easily on first name’s bases [sic], not like in France. If it doesn’t sound disrespectful to you, that is how she will call you. She was a little frightened she might get wrong with the difference between Ms and Mrs, something we just do not have here.”

  9. My mother’s first cousin (my first cousin once removed) decided to show how cool she was by getting return address labels (already uncool) that read:
    Ms. Robert Lindbergh
    (name changed to protect the foolish)

    My situation adds another twist: my marriage to my partner of 28 years is recognized in only a few states. Are her sisters my sisters-in-law, since our marriage is against the law here? And how does my son–no, wait, I’m not his mother, because THAT’S against the law, too, I’m merely his legal guardian–address his cousin Sharon, who might be my niece, and who is, in biological terms, his mother, and HER mother, my partner’s sister, maybe my sister-in-law, who is, biologically, his grandmother? Not to mention my partner’s mother, his grandmother, or is that great-grandmother, a devout Catholic, who must have to spend WEEKS in confession trying to get pardoned for the layers of sin her children have visited upon her.

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