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tl;dr If I'd introduce you to someone with "Say hi to my cousin Harry.", would you be surprised to later learn that it's my seventh second cousin twice removed because I used the word cousin and not specified it's not my first cousin?

I'm used to using it one way, and someone else (also a native English speaker) uses it the other way. So I searched and found conflicting answers here and here.

So are there really two customs, or is one of the sources wrong?

Obviously "cousin" can mean second cousin as in the expression "second cousin". But what about when used without any qualifiers, such as "my cousin said", can that mean second cousin or not?

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2 Answers 2

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I'll try to summarize the answers I got in the comments. If I misunderstood someone, please feel free to let me know.

Ignoring the comments saying that cousin can mean second cousin, because that was stated in the question already and was not the question of course, most comments seem to say that saying "my cousin" has no indication that it's a first cousin.

However, there is also a comment which states that usually that would mean a first cousin.

So in conclusion, albeit a non-scientific one, I'd say that some people would use the expression "my cousin" (and understand it) to denote any close cousin. On the other hand, some would assume it's referring to a first cousin.

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  • The kinship system used in American English doesn't go much beyond the nuclear family and the generation before it. We don't distinguish morbror from farbror, nor Kusine from Vetter, nor cross-cousin from parallel cousin. Anything distant is generally given a nonce relation name (I had an "uncle" and an "aunt" that happened to have the same last name but weren't related to us, and plenty of cousins and uncles (the aunts and uncles were the older ones) whose social and biological relations with us were mysterious, at least to a child. Sep 11, 2023 at 18:10
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    @JohnLawler I think you're raising an interesting point, that the answer to my question might depend on who is being addressed. E.g. whether it's an adult or a child.
    – 123
    Sep 11, 2023 at 18:13
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    If I was introducing a second cousin to somebody, I wouldn't say *this is my second cousin, Harry"—that seems you're trying to distance yourself from him. I would just say "cousin". On the other hand, if Harry was a seventh cousin, I can definitely see saying "This is a distant cousin of mine, Harry," because here, using plain "cousin" seems like it's trying to claim closer kinship than is really warranted. Sep 11, 2023 at 18:15
  • @123 Most meaning in language depends on who's being addressed Sep 11, 2023 at 18:15
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    In my culture (UK) you are much more likely to keep in touch with/talk about your first cousins than any more distant relation; that's why I said that 'cousin' usually means 'first cousin' - but if you do socialise with your second cousin there is no need to specify the exact relationship in casual conversation, as Peter says. Sep 11, 2023 at 18:21
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If one wishes to analyse the matters of this kind precisely, one needs to separate the meaning of the words involved from the social conventions that govern the settings in which they are typically used.

Typical residents of the UK, US, and culturally similar countries, have some regular interaction with their first cousins, but barely know who their second cousins are, let alone who the still more distant ones are. It is this that makes it reasonable to assume that somebody introduced as 'my cousin' is the speaker's first cousin. It is not that the meaning of the word cousin rules out the possibility of the person's being a second (or third, etc.) cousin; what makes it reasonable to assume that the person is the first cousin is that it would be highly unusual for distant cousins to ever find themselves in a social setting in which one would introduce the other to a third party. If it later turned out that the person is, in fact, the speaker's seventh cousin, one would be surprised, but the surprise would not be of the form 'Then why are you using the word cousin?'; it would rather be expressed as something like 'How come you two are so close if you are only seventh cousins?'.

If one is in a context, such as that of genealogy of the law of inheritance, in which the precise nature of the relationship is important, one would want to specify whether the people one is talking about are first, second, etc. cousins. In casual social interaction, that is, however, usually irrelevant; it is more than enough to know that the two people are somehow related (but not in each other's immediate family). While it is, for the reasons stated above, reasonable to assume that the person introduced as 'my cousin' is the speaker's first cousin, the question whether this is so usually doesn't cross one's mind.

(This answer is an elaboration of the points previously made in Ms Bunting's comments.)

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  • I'd agree with the second paragraph that suggests cousin can connote almost more a functional relationship than a genealogical one, usually indicating a "somewhat close" non-immediate family member of similar age. I know of one kid who has an uncle the same age as him, but functionally, most people consider them cousins, not uncle-nephew. Sep 20, 2023 at 18:01

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