COUSIN

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 22nd April 1996, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called COUSIN?

In the Middle Ages, before surnames had really evolved, people were more frequently identified by how they were related to other members of their particular community. No doubt in the closer-knit communities during that period such designations would have been meaningful, but as the population grew and there was more and more migration, it counted less who was related to who and more to where you came from or what you did for a living. Place-names and occupational names quickly took over as a means of identification and "Kinship" names faded away. Today, apart from a few fascinating relics, only "-son" is much in evidence. Perhaps that is just as well because kinship names could end up almost like Welsh Place-Names! Whoever would fancy having to answer to "Alice Punderesstepdoghtere" - meaning, "Alice the step-daughter of the Officer who takes charge of stray animals"!

Of the survivals in this field, the local Register yields a few examples: we can find a few "Brothers", "Fathers" and (especially "Cousin"). And it is to the last one we must now direct our attention. It has many variations such as "Cousins", "Cozens", "Cushing", "Cushion", etc. Apart from "-son" it is now the most frequently encountered example of that now discontinued form of surname. Some 100 families are listed under "Cousin" or one or more of its variations in the Regional Directories.

The origin of the word is from the Latin "consobrinus" which, in turn, was built up on "soror" meaning "sister" - hence "sorority". It is not, as it might appear, based on "consanguineus" - i.e. consanguinity. Mediaeval Society, following the Latin tradition, applied it to any member of a family beyond brothers and sisters, who was related through a Mother, and it was, in fact, frequently used to describe relatives whom we would now call nephews and nieces. Where it was really necessary clearly to designate a child as actually being the off-spring of an uncle or an aunt, the expression "German Cousin" came into being. Otherwise it may be taken that reference in Mediaeval writings to a person being a "cousin" to somebody else, signify that only some degree of relationship was acknowledged but without precision.

The use became so widespread that it expanded into a sort of easy-going form of address. In modern times it may loosely be likened to the way an older man will speak to a younger one as "son". Or, in another example, the practice among families to encourage children to refer to distant relatives, or even close friends of their parents, as "uncle" or "aunt."

The term "cousin", then, at first being a form of address eventually took on the status of a surname and would be adopted by or conferred upon individuals to indicate, perhaps, that they were related to some local notability. No doubt, also, it was noticed how it was used by "top-people" as a formula of courtesy. Even as late as the days of Queen Victoria, she was accustomed to address senior members of Her Nobility as "cousin". It is often encountered in Shakespeare. Hence it could very well have been copied by less exalted people who sought to impress those about them with their knowledge of the manners of "posh" society. Equally so, they might have tried to create an impression by alluding to aristocratic personages as Cousin-so-and-so." Probably their aristocratic relations ignored their absurd pretensions but their neighbours noted them and dubbed them "cousin" as a contemptuous nickname which has stuck!

Although it is now outdated, the expression "cousin" became so widely used that it took on a somewhat questionable familiarity - in much the same way as "mate" and "chum" can sometimes take today. Simple folk were made the objects of scheming swindlers who would flatter wherer vanity at being sought-out by such apparantly well-spoken individuals, and treated as equals through being addressed as "cousin" and would fall for some fraud. So much was the device used that the word "to cozen" came about, but it has now gone out of use and its equivalent is "to con".

No "head-liners" appear in the Standard Biographies but mention might be made of Ann Cousin (1824-1906) who wrote several hymns which are still sung, the best known being "The sands of time are sinking".

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 22nd April 1996.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Cousin.shtml
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