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I’m reading Twelfth Night, where in Act 1, Scene 5, Olivia says to Sir Toby Belch:

Olivia: Cousin, cousin, how have you come so early by this lethargy?

How come she’s calling her uncle “cousin”?

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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Because the original sense of the word in English, per the OED, was:

A collateral relative more distant than a brother or sister; a kinsman or kinswoman, a relative; formerly very frequently applied to a nephew or niece.

Which also includes the following citation:

  • 1599 Shaks. Much Ado I. ii. 2 ― How now brother, where is my cosen your son?
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It sounds a bit rustic/dated to me now, but in my youth cuz was common enough in UK SE greetings - "How's it going, cuz/mate/old man/my friend?" It didn't imply any blood relationship at all, distant or close. –  FumbleFingers Oct 14 '12 at 23:23
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A similar usage exists in modern-day slang (source):

cuz (n.) - cousin; friend; brotha; homey/homie

I have been called this by two of my uncles (thus adhering to the original sense), and it is used intermittently between family members. I am not sure how widespread the practice is outside of gang culture–which I'm not involved in–but I can attest to its usage in parts of the U.S. Midwest.

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