Affinal equivalents

In a comment on my 8/15 “niblings” posting, Aric Olnes reports having 20 niblings (sib’s kids), “27 including spouses”. Now, sib’s kid is a consanguineal relationship — of kinship “by blood” — in both of its parts, sib and kid. Including spouses introduces an affinal relationship — of kinship by marriage — into the mix.

A nibling’s spouse would be, technically, a nibling-in-law, but we don’t customarily treat such a person as an in-law; either they’re no kin at all (instead, in some Americans’ terminology, they’re a connection), or they’re treated as equivalent to a nibling (the way Aric treats them); sib’s-kid’s spouse counts as equivalent to sib’s kid.

Two things. First, this treatment of nibling’s (niece’s / nephew’s — sib’s-kid’s) spouse is entirely parallel to our customary treatment of auncle’s (aunt’s / uncles’s — parent’s-sib’s) spouse, who counts as equivalent to parent’s sib (though technically they’re an in-law, specifically an auncle-in-law). There are ad hoc ways of distinguishing parent’s-sib’s spouse from parent’s sib — as one’s, say, uncle by marriage, versus one’s blood uncle or own uncle (in my own family, distinguishing my uncles Al and Theodore — married to my father’s sisters Lillian and Bertha, respectively — from my father’s brothers, my uncles Fred and Walter). But mostly we treat parent’s-sib’s spouse as the same as parent’s sib.

Second, the above is just one way of introducing an affinal relationship into an entirely consanguineal one — giving what I think of as external affinal equivalence: X’s-Y’s spouse counting as equivalent to X’s Y (for sib’s-kid’s spouse and for parent’s-sib’s spouse). There’s also internal affinal equivalence, with spouse’s-X’s Y counting as equivalent to X’s Y. In external affinal equivalence, you pick up new kin from people your kin marry; while in internal affinal equivalence, you pick up new kin from the person you marry.

I will illustrate, again from my own (extended) family.

I am an only child; I have no sibs, and therefore no sib’s kids (niblings) or sib’s-kid’s spouses (nibling equivalents of Aric’s sort). I did, however, have a husband-equivalent, Jacques, and he had a sib (his older brother Bill) who had kids — two sons, Tom and Joe — so that my guy Jacques had two niblings (specifically, nephews), who we all treat as kind-of my niblings too, nephews by courtesy. That is, Tom and Joe are my spouse’s-sib’s kids, treated as if they were my sib’s kids.

Internal affinal equivalence is rarer than external. Generally, these people aren’t treated as kin, but only as connections. So things stand for most people with respect to auncles. Again, from my own family, this time using my first spouse, Ann Daingerfield Zwicky. Who had a beloved aunt, her mother’s sister Ann Walcutt Winn, married to Jack Winn. By ordinary custom, my Ann treated Jack as her uncle. But I didn’t treat Ann Winn as my aunt — only as a Kentucky connection of mine.

As you get further out in kinship relationships, both kinds of affinal equivalence become rare. On external affinal equivalence, consider (first) cousins, auncles’ kids, one degree further removed from you than sib’s kids (niblings). (The kin term cousin is at least neutral as to sex, unlike niece / nephew and aunt / uncle.) Out there in the family tree, most people are reluctant to grant cousinship to the spouse of a cousin; no matter how much I liked them, I have not treated my many cousins’ spouses — Ted’s wife Ida, Eleanor’s husband Dick — as my cousins.

As for internal affinal equivalence, that’s even less likely. I was pleased to be connected to Ann Daingerfield Zwicky’s cousin Harry (Ann Walcutt Winn’s son), but it never occurred to me to treat him (my wife’s-aunt’s son, that is spouse’s-auncle’s kid) as my cousin.

No doubt there are people who are more generous in their adoptions of affinal aunts, uncles, and cousins than I am, and people who are pickier than I am on affinal nieces and nephews. There’s plenty of room here for individual differences in kin-term usage.

4 Responses to “Affinal equivalents”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I have wrestled in the past with the question of what term to use to identify my brother’s wife’s brother. “Brother-in-law” is not quite accurate; “brother’s brother-in law” and “sister-in-law’s brother” are both rather cumbersome. (At this point, the question is academic for me; my brother’s present wife’s brother is deceased, and I haven’t had any occasion to refer his first wife’s brother for a long time.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      This is entirely relevant. I skirted the terminological issue in the posting, but here’s the thing: there are two kinds of sibs-in-law: sib’s spouse (“external” in the terminology above) and spouse’s sib (“internal”). These can then layer, in two ways, to give what are in effect double in-laws: sib’s spouse’s sib (your case) and spouse’s sib’s spouse (Virginia Transue’s relationship to me: she’s my spouse Jacques’s sib Bill’s spouse). If you put a name to these relationships, you’ll probably treat them as equivalent to a simple in-law relation (as Virginia and I do: she counts as my sister-in-law, and I count as her brother-in-law.)

      The point of these equivalences is not just selecting simple terms; the equivalences express feelings of familial closeness, caring, and even responsibility.

      These matters are in fact the topic of a follow-up posting about Virginia that I haven’t gotten to for months. (My life has been eventful.) I should try to do that now.

  2. Julian Lander Says:

    I feel it necessary to point out that nibling, even in the classic sense (not including niblings’ spouses or spouse-equivalents), is no longer necessarily a blood relationship. My Adorable Niece is the daughter of my sister and her wife, but she is biologically my sister-in-law’s child, so we have no blood relationship. I have found, to my delight, that I feel about her just as much as I would have expected to were she my sister’s biological child, but it tends to blur the difference between consanguineal and affinal relationships.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, there are all sorts of ways in which you can mess with the categories. And of course systems of categories for everyday use (as opposed to those devised for some technical purpose) are always “imperfect” in a variety of ways: unclear boundaries between adjacent categories, referents that fall within two opposed categories, referents that fall in none of the categories, and so on.

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