With relatives in the US south, I always thought that the definition of "kissing cousin" was a second cousin (or more distant) whom you could kiss and subsequently marry (FWIW I never did either!).

However, a number of dictionaries have a very different definition: namely, a relation close enough to kiss on meeting (sort of like a hug, I gather). I never heard the term used this way. Is it a recent "invention"?


kissing cousin
1. A relative close enough to be kissed in salutation, hence anyone with whom a person is fairly intimate:
The two species will often prove to be kissing cousins, for they'll crossbreed.
You guys talk like kissing cousins

TFD and Oxford Dictionaries confirm The Dictionary of American Slang's definition.

The closest reference I found to the idea I mentioned was the discussing of Cousin Marriage in Wikepedia.

Has any else heard the term used to refer to cousins who can be married?

  • 5
    According to Wikipedia: 'The United States has the only bans on cousin marriage in the Western world.[105][106][contradictory] As of February 2010, 30 U.S. states prohibit most or all marriages between first cousins, and a bill is pending in Maryland which would prohibit most first cousins from marrying there.' Nov 3, 2014 at 20:59
  • 2
    @EdwinAshworth Historically, the reason that European countries generally don't outlaw cousin marriage is perhaps because the royal houses, and aristocracies of Europe, have made frequent use of it. And in the modern age I think it is clearly shown to have little chance of adverse medical consequences.
    – WS2
    Nov 3, 2014 at 21:33
  • 2
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about an inventive but highly unusual "folk etymology" that simply doesn't figure in standard dictionaries. Not that I think it has any credibility or prevalence - but even if I did, that would be a Primarily Opinion-based perspective. Nov 3, 2014 at 21:53
  • 7
    Fumble Fingers: I simply don't agree. Perhaps it can be referred to as dialect. My question was: have other people heard the term used? Clearly it isn't in the UK, but you're not the only English speakers in the world! Are dialects/slang/regional usages "off-topic" for this site (I'm asking because I'm new here). Nov 3, 2014 at 21:56
  • 2
    My understanding (being raised in Kentucky) has always been that it refers to relatives who are sufficiently distant to be considered candidates for romance -- basically something more distant than first cousins.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 17, 2016 at 19:27

8 Answers 8


The term usually means a blood relation who is distant enough that you can fool around with, or indeed even marry / have children with.

Your actual question:

Are the dictionaries wrong/incomplete?

Yes, this is an unusual case where, apparently, all the reference works are just plain wrong.

Yes, the reference works mentioned are completely, totally, wrong.

(Note: the idea that the phrase related to "greeting procedures" is totally nonsensical. The idea of Americans (now or historically) "kissing" in greeting is absurd.)

So, say a child "played doctor" with a full sibling, or a full first cousin. That would be incredibly disturbed and psychologists would be called-in.

But a "kissin' cousin" is a relative - distant enough - where it's NOT a psychological emergency if there is some mild sexual involvement.

The term cheekily suggests the frisson of (very mild) incestuous sexuality.

Like any term, of course, it is used in different ways:

(*) distantly related enough that kids can "play doctor"

(*) distantly related enough that two people can indeed have full unprotected sexual intercourse

(*) distantly related enough that, legally, two people can get married

You need only look at the mentioned Elvis song which has astonishingly sexually raw lyrics.

It - uh - playfully talks about light incest, for an example of the usage of the phrase in question:


Well I've got a gal, she's as cute as she can be
She's a distant cousin.
But she's not too distant with me
We'll kiss all night
I'll squeeze her tight
But we're kissin' cousins
and that's what makes it all right
All right, all right, all right

My God, lyrics were explicit then.

  • 1
    I have never heard it used the way OED defines it, which is why I haven't accepted the (much up voted) answer referring to the OED reference. Nov 4, 2014 at 13:56
  • 2
    Has anyone on this site actually used the term in the way OED defines it? Nov 4, 2014 at 14:08
  • 2
    Yes, I do. Most common terms do not involve incest.
    – Oldcat
    May 29, 2015 at 23:13
  • 2
    In many, many jurisdictions world-wide first cousins are allowed to marry. Some scientists estimate that as many as 80% of all marriages in history were between second-cousins or closer. Do a google book search for "kissing cousins" and you'll find many many examples of it being used to describe things that are closely related. Feb 17, 2016 at 20:44
  • 1
    Fascinating to hear "all the reference books say different from me, so they must be wrong". Even more fascinating that the OP thinks that's the best answer. For the record I've only ever heard the definition the dictionaries give. Apr 8, 2018 at 23:12

'Kissing cousins' in reference works

Reference works vary considerably in how broadly or narrowly they understand the term kissing cousins. On the one hand we have this entry from Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997):

kissing cousins Two or more things that are closely akin or very similar. For example, They may be made by different manufacturers, but these two cars are kissing cousins. This metaphorical term alludes to a distant relative who is well known enough to be greeted with a kiss. {c. 1930}

Here, although she acknowledges the figurative use of "kissing cousins," Ammer sees the origin of the term as being strictly the well-known distant relative. In contrast, Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) has a long, fairly elaborate entry for "kissing cousin":

kissing cousin 1 A constant companion or friend, of the same or of the opposite sex, who is granted the same intimacy accorded blood relations. 1951: {same sex} "You guys talk like kissing cousins." Movie, The Tanks Are Coming. --> 2 Specif., a close platonic friend of the opposite sex. --> 3 Humorously, a member of the opposite sex with whom one is sexually familiar when the parties believe their intimacy is unknown. Orig. the term implied blood relationship and still does when used in Southern hill dial. In the South during the Civil War, kissing cousins were relatives who had the same political views. 4 A facsimile, someone or something closely resembling someone or something else.

Definition 4 in Wentworth & Flexner is evidently the same as the primary definition in Ammer. The completely rewritten (by Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer) Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) hews much closer to Ammer than to Wentworth & Flexner on this question:

kissing cousin (or kin) by 1940s 1 n A relative close enough to be kissed in salutation, hence anyone with whom a person is fairly intimate: [example omitted] 2 n A close copy: [example omitted]

'Kissing cousins' in Google Books search results

That Ammer is correct as to the original meaning (though wrong as to the date of origin) of the phrase is clear from early Google Books matches for "kissing cousin." From Edward Pollard in a letter from Oakridge Virginia (1858), in Black Diamonds Gathered in the Darkey Homes of the South (1859):

Here I spent a few days of delightful happiness, especially in company with my pretty cousin with the Roman name. But having found out that kissing cousins was no longer fashionable in Virginia, and that it excited my dear aunt's nerves, with one last lingering kiss of the sweet lips, I had my little leather Chinese trunk packed on the head of a diminutive darkey and again embarked upon the James river and Kanawha canal.

From Edward Pollard (again), "A Re-Gathering of 'Black Diamonds' in the Old Dominion," in Southern Literary Messenger (October 1859):

Pursuing my journey, I make the usual round of visits to uncles and cousins, and even remoter relatives. Again I am charmed by visits to hospitable kin; and again, I am especially charmed by the Virginia fashion of kissing cousins to the third degree. The pretty cousin “with the Roman name” is again greeted with a kiss, and found not only on her lips but in her heart as sweet as ever. God bless her!

From Julian Street, American Adventures: A Second Trip "Abroad at Home" (1917):

Speaking broadly of the South, I believe that there survives little real bitterness over the Civil War and the destructive and grotesquely named period of "reconstruction." When a southern belle of to-day damns Yankees, she means by it, I judge, about as much, and about as little, as she does by the kisses she gives young men who bear to her the felicitous southern relationship of "kissing cousins."

And from WPA Writers' Program, Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State (1940):

Marylanders who can trace their ancestry to the early period of colonization are all cousins, the outsider quickly concludes. Most of them actually are 'connections,' and when they aren't, they are 'kissing cousins,' which generally means that parents and grandparents were lifelong, intimate friends.

In none of this usage is there a hint of "kissing cousins" being used to refer to relatives who can kiss without taboo because they are distantly enough related that marriage is legally available to them. In fact, kissing has never been taboo between close relatives. The earliest Google Books instance I can find that connects "kissing cousins" with marriage is a 1967/1968 issue of Health News [combined snippets]:

Kissing Cousins

Is it against the law in New York State for first cousins to marry? If they do, will there be something wrong with their children?

New York State law does not forbid marriage between first cousins. There is a somewhat higher risk that children resulting from such a marriage may be born with a genetically determined defect or disease than would be present in children resulting from a marriage between two individuals who are not related.

But this instance involves an eye-catching subhead, not an attempt to define kissing cousins in terms of a level of consanguinity at which marriage is acceptable. The earliest actual usage I could find of "kissing cousins" in the sense of "blood relatives who are eligible to marry one another" is in Richard Jensen, Illinois: A History (1978):

The churches enhanced their cohesiveness by fostering marriages within the group. This actually widened the range of eligible spouses from immediate neighbors and "kissing cousins" to unrelated persons. The frontierspeople intermarried freely with natives of other states (except Yankees and foreigners, who rarely gave or took brides from their upland southern neighbors in Illinois).

'Kissing cousins' in newspaper database search results

The Library of Congress's Chronicling America database of old newspapers finds a few matches for "kissing cousins" for the period between 1834 and 1922, the most interesting of which is "Kissing a Pretty Cousin," in the [Montpelier] Vermont Watchman and State Journal (August 28, 1845):

It is a grave question—has a man a right to kiss the tempting lips of a pretty cousin? The Philosopher of the Richmond Star averreth that he has, on being provoked to do so—and they say, he is the easiest man to be provoked within the limits of the "Old Dominion." But he says that the lips of a pretty cousin are a sort of neutral ground, between a sister's and a stranger's. If you sip, it is not because you love, not exactly because you have the right, not upon grounds Platonic, nor with the calm satisfaction that you kiss a favorite sister. It is a sort of hocus-pocus commingling of all, into which each feeling throws its parts, until the concatenation is thrilling, peculiar, exciting, delicious, and "emphatically sleek." This is as near to a philosophical analyzation as he can well come, he thinks, and then he intimates that all the sweet, pretty girls are kissing cousins in Virginia. The Major says he hopes this custom will travel fast into the other States, and become extensively fashionable—and the Major is a man of taste.

A shortened version of the original remarks of the Virginia authority—identified as "Corporal Streeter"—appears in The [Spartanburg, South Carolina] Spartan (September 25, 1844).


Perhaps the most interesting thing about the OP's question is how widespread the notion is that "kissing cousins" has the meaning "cousins distantly enough related to be eligible to marry each other," despite the absence of support for that meaning in reference works. In effect, we have a regional (Southern) American meaning—"related closely enough to justify kissing at greeting"—of long standing (going back at least as far as 1844 in Virginia) that subsequently caught on elsewhere as a phrase with a completely different meaning, without the newer users' having a clear notion of what the phrase originally meant.

Under the circumstances, it's hard to say how well established the "marriageable" sense of "kissing cousins" is. That meaning, though unconfirmed by reference works, shows signs of being fairly widespread today—as we see from the fact that the poster and several answerers here (including at least one from the U.S. South) seem to share it.

  • 3
    It seems to me that at least two of your references above are not referring to the idiomatic "kissing cousins" but are in fact referring to the practice of kissing ones cousin.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 18, 2016 at 1:33
  • 1
    @HotLicks: Right. The two 1859 instances refer to the Virginia custom of kissing one's cousins, which (I infer) led to the term "kissing cousin" as used in the 1917 citation (the date for which I unfortunately omitted until now).
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 18, 2016 at 1:51
  • 2
    The mix of sociology and semantics is fascinating here. I grew up in the southern US, but not in a culture where men and women kiss (does anybody do that anymore?) So 'kissing cousin' always meant the salacious thing to me, a non-serious dalliance with a cousin, very literal (with kissing being romantic). So all those dictionary definitions sound like from another planet to me.
    – Mitch
    Feb 18, 2016 at 2:25
  • Mitch makes a perfect point. The idea that in the US, you might kiss someone in greeting is as ridiculous as suggesting that in France you'd have McDonalds for lunch whilst utilizing a drive-through bank in your pick-up truck.
    – Fattie
    Feb 18, 2016 at 14:42

A kissing cousin is defined by the OED as:

a relative or friend with whom one is on close enough terms to greet with a kiss

There is no mention of it being an American term. All the examples given are British and date between 1951 and 1971. Speaking personally, I have never heard anyone use it.

  • 3
    Could OED be mistaken???? :) Nov 3, 2014 at 21:44
  • 1
    @WhiskeyPapa Anything is possible I suppose. But the OED do welcome feedback, and on the one occasion I queried something it was dealt with expeditiously and very courteously, by way of a telephone call to me. It turned out, needless to say, that they were right. But you might like to try them!
    – WS2
    Nov 3, 2014 at 21:52
  • 1
    I was joking, but I find it strange that none of the dictionaries I saw mention this second meaning. I remember vividly a pretty 2nd cousin telling me that we're "kissing cousins" when I was a young lad… So I'm sure my/her use of the term is correct! Nov 3, 2014 at 21:54
  • 2
    It is used quite often where I live in southern Idaho. Our usage of the term is of two closely related people (1st or 2nd cousins) who are romantically involved. However, phrases often mean different things in different areas, so whether this definition of it is correct or not is questionable.
    – Arradras
    Nov 3, 2014 at 22:24
  • 3
    Kissing cousin is a close relationship, not a distant one. The OED is right, and the incest boosters need to scrub their brains to think a handy term is needed to regulate their lust for close relations.
    – Oldcat
    May 29, 2015 at 23:11

I'm from a huge-ish family in Michigan, USA, and I've only ever heard the phrase "kissing cousins" used to refer to cousins distantly-enough related to be able to have a romantic relationship without assaulting the sensibilities of the community, typically in the range of 3rd cousins, or farther removed. The "kissed in salutation" definition is a.) one I've never, ever heard used, and, b.) patently ridiculous. Cheers!

  • Just as Mr Frost says, it is utterly ridiculous to suggest, in the US, it has something to do with a salutation (as in when Russians, say, kiss each other in greeting).
    – Fattie
    Feb 18, 2016 at 14:42
  • And indeed, here we have the normal definition and use of the term "distantly-enough related to be able to have a romantic relationship without assaulting the sensibilities of the community". Couldn't be simpler. This is an odd case where all the reference books seem to be just wrong. Perhaps due to Russian, French, etc writers thinking Americans give each other a big kiss when they meet down at the local WalMart.
    – Fattie
    Feb 18, 2016 at 14:44

If you look for usage of this phrase, you can clearly find modern examples that use it to mean "closely related" and not "distantly-related".

Frogs and Humans are kissing cousins - Nature, 2010

NoSQL And Elastic Caching Platforms Are Kissing Cousins Mike Gualtieri's Blog, Forrester

2 Reasons Why Projects and Processes are Kissing Cousins Piematrix.com

A simple google search will find many more. Clearly, these examples are using the phrase metaphorically in the "close enough relation that you can greet with a kiss" sense, and not in the "distant enough relation that it's okay for them to make babies" sense.

That said, language changes, and sometimes phrases start to take on opposite meanings. When referring to literal cousins who are concerned about whether or not it's okay to make babies together, maybe you should avoid using this phrase.

  • 2
    Note that "are kissing cousins" can be read either way. I would read the above headlines to mean "distantly related" (vs not being related at all).
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 17, 2016 at 19:33
  • @HotLicks If you read the articles I linked to, you'll see that they are emphasizing the relationship rather than de-emphasizing it. They are talking about things that are related, closely enough that it is worth considering the relationship, not dismissing the relationship as so distant it doesn't matter if you make babies together. Feb 17, 2016 at 20:33
  • The three examples you offer are precisely using the term (humorously) in the normal way -- i.e., someone related to you so closely that's there's a bit of frisson when you play doctor. (Moreover, all three could be read in any way: as HL suggest, as I suggest or as you suggest.) (If on reading the article, the writers are using it the "wrong" way - they're just silly.)
    – Fattie
    Feb 18, 2016 at 14:46
  • Frankly the notion that there's any "frisson" when a NoSQL and Elastic Cache Platform make a baby is slightly ridiculous. Apr 27, 2018 at 15:06

I agree with Mr. Frost. I am from a large family in Louisiana. Kissing cousins here means 3rd cousins or greater, meaning those cousins that are able to become intimate or wed. And I have also have not heard of the term used as relations you can kiss. We pretty much hug and kiss all family members regardless of whether they are grandparents, Aunt, Uncle or cousins, whether closely or distantly related.


I'm from Texas, by way of Oklahoma, and my experience with this term is slightly different than most here. Most of the answers have described it as either close enough that a platonic kiss is proper, or distantly related enough that a romantic kiss is proper.

In my experience, the term has no limits of propriety; two things are "kissing cousins" if they are close in every way you can think of, whether it's socially acceptable for them to be so close in all those ways or not, and that's part of the point of adding the adjective; they don't just have a common ancestor, they share things with each other that perhaps ought not to be.


Kissing One’s Cousins

The expression kissing cousins arose in the American South from the practice of cousins greeting each other with a kiss:

Pursuing my journey, I make the usual round of visits to uncles and cousins, and even remoter relatives. Again I am charmed by visits to hospitable kin; and again, I am especially charmed by the Virginia fashion of kissing cousins to the third degree. — Southern Literary Messenger 29 (1859), 296.

A third cousin is one with which one shares a great great grandparent, so not a particularly close relation. Another writer in the same year, however, suggests that the custom had gone out of of fashion — or perhaps only temporarily:

Here I spent a few days of delightful happiness, especially in company with my pretty cousin with the Roman name. But having found out that kissing cousins was no longer fashionable in Virginia, and that it excited my dear aunt's nerves, … — Edward Alfred Pollard, Black Diamonds, 1859, 73.

One wonders whether prevailing custom in Virginia or the nervous aunt is more responsible for this particular decline. In 1917 at least, the custom was still practiced as a pro forma greeting:

When a southern belle of to-day damns Yankees, she means by it, I judge, about as much, and about as little, as she does by the kisses she gives young men who bear to her the felicitous southern relationship of “kissing cousins.” — Julian Street, American Adventure, 1917, 194.

And of course the supreme mythmaker of the American South, Margaret Mitchell, felt compelled to comment on the Southern obsession with degrees of cousinship:

The ramifications of cousins, double cousins, cousins-in-law and kissing cousins were so intricate and involved that no one but a born Georgian could ever unravel them. — Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 1936, 952.

And some three years later:

It made not the least difference that afterwards he heard that she was only a ‘kissing cousin,’ this queen. — Thomasine Cobb McGehee, Journey Proud, 1939, 125.

Who is a Kissing Cousin?

None of these sources specify exactly what this “felicitious relationship” actually entailed; they either assume the reader will know or not particularly care beyond a vague notion of “some sort of cousin.” Later sources, however, suggest primarily (1) someone not related by blood or marriage yet still “family,” or, occasionally, (2) a relative so distant that even Southerners won’t bother figuring out the degree, but who is nevertheless close.

Though by the 1940s the expression is rapidly escaping the South — see this NGram — it is still felt as a regionalism, often enclosed in quotation marks:

Distant relatives and informal cousins, sometimes called "kissing cousins," attached themselves to households. — The Repressible Conflict, 1830-1861, 1939, 18.

Marylanders who can trace their ancestry to the early period of colonization are all cousins, the outsider quickly concludes. Most of them actually are 'connections ,' and when they aren't, they are 'kissing cousins,' which generally means that parents and grandparents were lifelong, intimate friends. — Maryland: a Guide to the Old Line State, Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Maryland,1940, 8.

We will call you cousin, and if young and good looking, which seems the rule in Indiana, we will count you close enough to be treated as "kissing cousins," as we say in Kentucky and Virginia. — Indiana History Bulletin, 18 (1941), 123.

There were usually six to ten bridesmaids in hoopskirts and pantallettes, and the house was so full of sisters, nieces and “kissing cousins” that it was no trouble to make up a wedding party. “Kissing cousins” were the most numerous and stayed the longest! Closely allied to the bride by old family friendships rather than blood ties, they arrived from every point of the compass and were always house guests. — Mary Ernestine Lewis, Dorothy Dignam, The Marriage of Diamonds and Dolls, 1947, 71.

“You have no idea how pleasant it is to have a taste of real informal home life for a change.”
"Poor Mr. Fewmish! Haven't you any family?"
"Not even kissing cousins," said Oliver… — Barnaby Dogbolt, The Goose's Tale, 1947, 40.

There may be a cautionary control over gossip in an environment in which almost everyone is a kissing cousin of everyone ... — Hartzell Spence, Happily Ever After, 1949, 204.

Transferred Use

Writers may say that something is a “kissing cousin” of something else to indicate a close similarity or relationship:

And. though Johnny on a Spot belongs to that remote decade in its would-be tough attitude, most assuredly it is not even a kissing cousin of The Front Page. — New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 3 (1942), 391.

That one of these plays is set in the South may have influenced the choice of words.

Elastron BY JODI CASUALS "Elastron" stretch fabric, kissing cousin to lustrous Italian flat silk knit... with American knack for fit. — The New Yorker 39 (1964), Part 1, 164.


Kissing cousins inhabit a white Southern universe where rural planter families frequently intermarried; thus who and how two people might be related could be a not infrequent topic for conversation. A scion of such a family was

…also brought up to have a strong sense of obligation to his kin. The number of Southern words and expressions relating to the ties of family — kinfolks, blood kin, kissing kin, kissing cousins, connections, "Virginia cousins" — testifies to the strength of the code in this respect.

Concepts like kissing kin and kissing cousins expanded that sense of family to include the children of family friends or relatives too distant to be considered close:

Mr. Bates, a lobsterman by trade, was a distant cousin. Not a kissing cousin to be sure, but a blood relative on her father's side. — The Virginia Quarterly Review 76, 3 (2000), 437.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.