Revisiting Uncle Wiki’s Cousins
82.1 It all started when I was re-reading G4BB 65: Uncle Wiki’s Cousins. You know, I try to make these blogs interesting to people who are interested in kinship…and if I don’t enjoy reading them myself, there’s trouble. Yes, on several occasions I have junked an entire column and started over because I just didn’t like what I’d written. I think that’s the difference between, as Truman Capote called them, writing and typing. In any event, G4BB 65 was my critique of Wikipedia’s less-than-satisfactory attempt to explain what a “cousin” is, and I wondered if any changes had been made. Mind you, I did not intend to, nor did I, examine and compare the entire Wiki article, then and now, line by line…but I was gratified that the very beginning had been modified. Here’s what I had to say about what was there before…
82.2 And here’s what it looked like as of Saturday morning, August 25th, at 7:30AM…
Nice improvement…any connection between my suggestions and their re-write? It doesn’t matter…I was simply applying common sense and it appears one Wikipedian chose to do the same. I then naturally wondered if the most egregious mistake…what I volunteered to generously label a “typo”…had also been corrected…
82.3 No, it’s still there, altho…
They now have the common decency to label this goof “not standard terminology.” And trust me, for a Wikipedian, that’s saying something…it borders on being judgmental…and even tho they refuse to call a spade a spade, or an error an error, I’m sure even this gentle “not standard” qualification raised the ire of some of the cult’s True Believers.
82.4 And when you think about it, this whole “Asymmetric definitions” section is misguided. Just before this, they introduced the concept of cousins removed, and did so correctly. At this stage, it was a symmetric definition…if you are my 1C1R, I am your 1C1R…as opposed to an asymmetric definition like father/son…if you are my father, I am not your father…and if I am your son, you are not my son, get it? This section now introduces the upwards/downwards (a.k.a. ascending/descending) terminology, and yes, this converts 1C1R from a symmetric to an asymmetric kinship relation, in that it tells you which is the older generation, which is the younger…in an awkward way for sure, but as best as you can, since we lack simple terms like father/son or uncle/nephew.
82.5 So far so good…but what do they do then? They give an example of how upwards/downwards is used, and they get it wrong! So what exactly is the “not standard terminology”? Not upwards/downwards…that absolutely is standard terminology. When they say “some people prefer…” they must be talking about people who want to make the 1C1R relationship exact and unambiguous…by making it asymmetric rather than symmetric…they can’t possibly mean people who wish to use it the wrong way! Fine, they label their incorrect example “not standard”…but why in heaven’s name didn’t they simply use a correct example in the first place? Beats me…but then, this is typical of the fuzzy thinking that permeates Wikipedia…face it, an “encyclopedia” written by amateurs just ain’t gonna cut it, my friends.
82.6 As to this mistake itself, you’ll see it a lot…I might almost say it’s a case of over-thinking it. By that I mean, the idea of cousin removed meaning “up or down a generation” is the little bit of knowledge that’s the proverbial “dangerous thing.” It’s a case of not clearly understanding the fundamental meaning of the term cousin removed. Yes, you must keep repeating the mantra: a cousin removed is not my cousin, but somebody else’s cousin. You simply are NOT describing how this person is related to you, but how they are related to somebody else…who in turn is related to you. But who is this “somebody else”? It’s a person to whom you are either a son or a cousin…that’s because your 1C1R is someone with whom you share the the relationship that the father of one of you is the cousin of the other. And as you can see in Chart 288…in determining the relationship between X and Y…Y’s child is definitely NOT the person who is the cousin of one and the father of the other…how much plainer could it be?
82.7 But this all ties in with the fact that people who make mistakes in reckoning kinship are not using an “alternate system”…because there simply isn’t one, at least not in English. The nonjudgemental crowd can call it “another way of doing it” till they’re blue in the face, but they’re wrong. And that’s easy to demonstrate: once you try to apply the mistake to the entire length and breadth of kinship terminology…as you ought be be able to if it really were an “alternate system”… you very quickly get into contradictions and inconsistencies…but heck, that’s what making mistakes is all about! In this specific case, applying the “2nd cousin logic” to your 1st cousin ends up renaming your uncle…duh.
82.8 I might also mention in passing that the “Asymmetric definitions” section I presented above has several references cited, of which 2 are particularly relevant.  is a book on language, an anthology of articles, and provides a perfect example of a muddle-headed attempt to elevate a simple mistake into an alternate system…complete with tortured efforts to explain the “logic” of this supposed system…when of course there is no logic to it, as Chart 289 clearly shows. But then that’s the wacky Wiki ideal…if it’s in a book, it must be true.
82.9 And  is just a web-site…possessing no more or no less intrinsic authority than G4BB. Here, the author runs thru the meanings of kinship terms, and when he gets to cousins removed, he presents the Chart 289 mistake NOT as alternate, “non-standard” usage, but simply as “the way it works.” The correct way, tellingly, is nowhere to be found. And again, this is what passes for verification, hence truth, in Wikiland.
82.10 Well and good. Now part 2…in which I do a dangerous and probably ill-advised thing…I call the Chart 289 mistake to their attention, by posting on the “Talk” page…you’ll find the tab at the top left, to the right of the “Article” tab. I should say at the outset that I found Mr. King’s comments both civil and duly earnest…I have had run-ins with the bristly Wikipedian gatekeeper mentality in the past, let me tell you. Our conversation is reproduced below…(I am green…)
82.11 Now in my response labeled C, I began by saying I understood, but I was wrong…I most assuredly did NOT understand. I took LK at his word that this “Asymmetric definitions” section was devoted to exploring “non-standard” definitions, which is why in point (1) I wonder if all the other myriad mistakes possible…and trust me, I’ve seen the ones I cited, and more besides…were going to be included…hardly feasible, given people’s capacity for misunderstanding things. Had I bothered to re-read the section in question, I would have come to the conclusion outlined above, starting in 82.4…which is, a section that starts out introducing upwards/downwards as a method of improving cousin removed from a symmetric to an asymmetric kinship term…ends up getting the practical application of this idea W-R-O-N-G-wrong…no other way to look at it. As I said, this basic upwards/downwards terminology is, in the English language anyway, NOT non-standard! Yes, it is often ignored…it is considered, I guess, too complicated…but it IS the way we do it.
82.12 And I must call your attention to my point (3)…yes, in the uncle/nephew relationship, the nephew is called one thing and the uncle is called another…to that extent it is asymmetric. But the relationship itself is completely symmetric…both uncle and nephew share equally in the relationship of one of them being the son of the other’s brother. In other words…if from my point of view, one of us is the son of the other’s brother…then from your point of view, the same is true…one of us is the son of the other’s brother. A truly asymmetric relationship…one that would lead to inventible contradictions, as my “half-marriage” example demonstrates…would be this: If from my point of view, one of us is the nephew and one of us is the uncle, then from your point of view, one of us is the grand nephew and the other is the grand uncle.
82.13 But alas, I must now come to LK’s rejoinder labeled D. What I’m about to say will seem harsh, but I trust LK would not take it personally…he is so caught up in the Wikimentality that he can’t see the forest for the trees. Obviously, he misses the point that a section that starts out by introducing the upwards/downwards terminology…which is asymmetric in one sense, but symmetric in another…ends up applying these terms incorrectly…and no amount of “non-standard” weaseling is going to change that. BTW, is 2 + 2 = 5 these days considered “non-standard arithmetic.”
82.14 The more serious problem is his view that “there’s no point in discussing whether these alternate terms are good.” Well, sure…to the extant that anyone who makes this “alternate” error has probably already argued about it for years with more knowledgable members of his family…hopefully it was resolved short of gunplay. But the inexplicably seductive notion that there is no right or wrong, no good or bad is what makes Wikipedia ultimately such a huge waste of time. With no right or wrong, human knowledge itself is impossible. The trouble is this: If there is no right or wrong, then it is neither right nor wrong to say there is no right or wrong! Thus, it is wrong that there is no right or wrong…altho it’s also right…end result: intellectual chaos.
82.15 And if I might try to “explic” the inexplicable, could it be that it makes one conclude “Therefore I cannot be wrong”? Perhaps it’s similar to how calling them “issues” makes one think one has no “problems.” I can’t honestly say. I do recall the goofy admonition: Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out. In any event, is it any wonder that I chose to stop my wikiversation and just let it go? Well, there, not here, obviously. Still, this confusion between 2nd cousins and 1C1R reminds me of something written on-line by a very knowledgable individual…in contrast to the ineffectual ramblings from Wikipedia and wiseGEEK that I’ve critiqued here in the past. It’s a website and an author that’s been a great help to me, and I’d like to pass it along to you…which happens next week, same time, same blog…
Copyright © 2012 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved
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