← Ken Kaye's Miscellaneous Publications


Kenneth Kaye, Journal of Irreproducible Results, 1986, 13-14.


Text Box:    To social anthropologists, the kinship terms of a particular society's language reveal the whole structure of that culture. The Yuukliu Eskimos, for example, make a distinction between mukluk, the uncle who is one's mother's brother, and lukmuk, one's father's brother. We speakers of English lump both those collateral male relatives into the same category, and we toss the husbands of our aunts in as well. In our culture it is the person himself, and what he can do for you, that matters; not his blood relationship.

Kinship terms are especially revealing when they designate relationships that one culture deems unimportant , and therefore nameless, while another culture deems them so important that a special term is needed. For example, one's married children's parents-in-law are thought of so rarely in the Anglo-Saxon culture that no term for them is needed; the fact that they have a special name in Yiddish, machetunim, indicates their importance as mutual objects of cordial contempt.

Societies change over time, however, and sometimes language is a little slow to keep pace with changes in the culture. Anthropologists need a new set of kinship terms to capture the complexity of family relationships in America. Some examples:

Ex-husbands-in-law. One's wife's previous husbands. (Similarly, one's husband's previous wives are one's ex-wives-in-law.)

In-husband. One's ex-wife's current husband. This person is the counterpart of the ex-husband-in-law: I am one of my in-husband's ex-husbands-in-law. However, the relationship is not symmetrical because each ex-husband has no more than one in-husband (legally) while an in-husband may have several ex-husbands-in-law. Usually only the most recent ex-husband-in-law matters to an in-husband, unless the more remote ex-husbands-in-law's children are still living with their mother and the in-husband (their stepfather). (The children's stepmother is her ex-wives-in-law's in-wife. Henceforth, such obvious gender reversals will be omitted in the interest of brevity.)

First husband once removed, etc. This set of terms refers to the changes in person A's ex-spouse's status with each subsequent remarriage of A. If I am my wife's third husband, for example, there may be considerable animosity between her second husband and us, especially if she left him for me or if she hasn't forgiven him for leaving her. But her first husband, now the first husband once removed, is off the hook. The second husband will become the second husband once removed when and if I cease to be the in-husband.

Step-grandparents vs. grand-stepparents. The former are the parents of one's stepparents, who enter one's life later than one's blood grandparents, and often depart sooner (see next entry). The latter are one's parents' stepparents, who, if one knows them at all, may be the only grandparents one has.

Ex-step-grandmother. The mother of one's ex-stepfather or ex-stepmother. Sometimes called the disappearing grandmother, this person stops sending sweaters from Lord & Taylor and is never heard from again. However, one is not expected to return her previous gifts, and the ex-stepparent should not claim them in the settlement.

Step-step-grandfather. One's stepfather's stepfather. He may be acquired at the time one acquires the stepfather, or later (if the step-grandmother remarries after her son does.)

Ex-step-step-grandparents. There are two kinds: one's stepparents' ex-stepparents, and one's ex-step-parents' stepparents. The distinction is trivial, since all disappear upon acquiring this status.

Step-ex-step-grandfather. A non-grandfather whom a child's new stepfather's mother divorced prior to her son's marriage to the child's mother. The set is empty on the stepmother's side unless the children live more than half the year with their father and stepmother, and the stepmother's ex-stepfather had married her mother while she (the stepmother) was still a child.

Half-children once removed. One's ex-spouse's children by subsequent marriages, but only if one or more of one's own children also live with that ex-spouse. The latter children are then the in-husband's or in-wife's stepchildren, which is why this term is needed for the relationship between oneself and one's children's half-siblings.

Ex-brothers and ex-sisters. The offspring of a child's ex-stepparents, but only those who lived in the same household with the child and were called “brothers” and “sisters” for at least a month prior to their parent and the child's parent separating. Children are remarkably tolerant of such kithship updates, but problems occasionally arise if they happen to run into their ex-siblings later, and fall in love. If an ex-brother marries his ex-sister, each one's parent (on that side) becomes the in-law once removed of his or her own ex-spouse, and that parent's current spouse (if any) becomes stepparent-in-law to his or her own stepchildren twice removed. However, if the ex-brother and ex-sister live together without marrying (as who can blame them?), then their four closest parents remain their ex-stepparents as stepfathers-in-common-law to one member of the couple and stepmothers-in-common-law to the other.

Stepchildren twice removed. The children by previous marriages, of one's in-spouse. The paradox: Your stepchildren (not removed) are not related to you by blood. Your half-children once removed are related to you (sort of: by blood once removed), because they are half-siblings of your own natural children. Nonetheless, one sees them rarely if ever, whereas one sees far too much of one's stepchildren not removed. Stepchildren twice removed are not related to you (unless your in-husband or in-wife happens to be either your own relative or an ex-in-law), yet you may see more of them than of your step- and half-children once removed, because the twice removed are likely to be closer in age to your own children, live with them for part of the summer, and can't very well be left behind when you pick up your natural children for a day at Great America. (A friend of mine found himself at the top of the Hell Drop strapped into a cabriolet with two screaming stepchildren twice removed, his glasses falling off, his wallet missing, without the faintest idea where his stepchildren once removed, his stepchildren not removed, his children, half-children, and ex-children were. His girlfriend, it turned out, had picked up a sailor and gone home.)