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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’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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KEN D... December 08, 2011 at 02:59 PM
"And her (your daughter) 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?" Is it really here Aunt? What if they got divorced?
Judy Mintz December 08, 2011 at 03:18 PM
Oh, good question...
KEN D... December 08, 2011 at 03:24 PM
There are a couple of women who are now my Ex Aunts do to divorce. I find myself saying, "She used to be my aunt, was married to my uncle." I also find myself using the terms Uncle-in-law and Aunt-in-law. I think of "in-law" as being synonomous with "by virture of marriage".

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