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Nieces, Nephews, and Cousins

I get a daily email you might be interested in: http://www.Grammarphobia.com. The primary author is Patricia O’Conner, who wrote my favorite grammar book, Woe Is I. (Yes, that is grammatically correct, but don’t worry.) In addition to being extremely informative, Pat writes with a wonderful sense of humor—many fun connections and plays on words. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

In today’s Grammarphobia email, a reader asked her why we have words indicating gender for nieces and nephews but use only cousin, without showing whether that cousin is male or female. In fact, said Pat, a gendered word does exist: cousiness. Who knew, right? It’s archaic and rarely seen today, so you can forget about it.

O’Conner quotes Joanna Rubery, a former online editor for Oxford Dictionaries:

“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.”

 

 

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