Ms. Genealogist: Our Kinship: Cousins? Aunts? Uncles?
Family historians take kinship terms seriously. We know what we mean by "cousin" or "aunt" or "uncle."
The general population is often not quite as precise in their use of the terms, and we have to be very cautious when we encounter the terms in interviews and correspondence.
I started thinking along these lines over the Easter holidays as a result of a sermon in which the priest was attempting to establish the exact relationship of John the Baptist and Jesus based on the biblical notation that their respective mothers were cousins. If this is correct then they were, of course, second cousins.
I wondered, though, if the term "cousins" was used to denote kinship rather than a specific degree of relationship. After all, this is used in different cultures around the world. I thought to myself that I have first cousins I refer to as "aunt" and "uncle" and this has been said throughout the history of our family.
I have several cousins who were considerably older than I was and I regularly referred to them as uncles and aunts in deference to their age. I have a handful of second cousins who are referred to as cousins and naturally their parents are referred to as aunts and uncles, although they are first cousins. This can be confusing to any poor soul trying to sort relationships. These respective names are given out as pure acknowledgment of love, honor, and respect.
Take heart -- it gets worse. Frequently, close friends of parents were referred to by their children as aunts and uncles and their children as cousins. This was probably more common in the days before children called adults by their first names, but it can still create a lot of confusion and headaches to one's genealogy.
These same close friends can show up as godparents at Baptisms and First Communions and other events
reinforcing the notion of their kinship. They are considered kissing kin, kissing cousins rather than blood relatives.
Now, to make sense of all these "aunts and uncles," you make an appointment to interview their families. When interviewing people about their families I try to ensure a follow-up interview. In the first interview I let them freely tell their stories as they want to me. Don't interrupt them for clarification -- it would only inhibit them.
When I return home with my interview I try to make sense out of all the data and impose a rudimentary structure to it. At that time, I can draft a set of specific interview questions that will bring order out of the chaos at the follow-up interview.
A relationship chart is a useful tool in distinguishing degrees of "cousiness," and there are a number that you can download from the internet.
Remember to treat each person in your list as a gift of extended family, that given "aunt or uncle" may know more about the family you are researching than the biological "aunt or uncle." As we say in genealogy, "Simply Leave No Stone Unturned."
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