Historically Speaking

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Kissing Cousins

Posted by Admin on March 6, 2021

Last week while researching kith and kin, a journalist’s column from 1960 postulated that the expression kissing cousins was a variation of kith and kin. Idiomation decided to put that theory to the test.

Out of curiosity, Idiomation wondered how common cousin marriages there were around the world, and lo and behold, more than ten percent of marriages are between first or second cousins according to a piece written for the New York Times by Sarah Kenshaw but was published on 26 November 2009 titled, “Shaking Off The Shame.”

Author H.G. Wells married his first cousin, Isabel Mary Wells, and poet Edgar Allan Poe married his first cousin Virginia Clemm as did Christopher Robin Milne (son of author A.A. Milne) who married his first cousin Lesley Selincourt. Even Albert Einstein married his first cousin as did Charles Darwin!

Knowing there are so many kissing cousins in the world even in this generation, the origins of the expression were even more intriguing.

During the Civil War, kissing cousins referred to relatives who held the same political views. It also went beyond that as seen in American author, journalist, and Confederate sympathizer Edward Alfred Pollard’s piece, “A Re-Gathering of ‘Black Diamonds’ in the Old Dominion” published in Southern Literary Messenger in 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!

Corporal Streeter spoke on the subject on 25 September 1844 in the Spartanburg Spartan newspaper where the following was printed.

Hear what Corporation Street says about kissing cousins: The lips of a pretty cousin are a sort of ground between a sister’s and a neutral stranger’s. If you sip, it is not because you love, nor exactly because you have the right, nor 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 part, until the concatenation is thrilling, peculiar, exciting, delicious, and emphatically slick. This is as near a philosophical analization as we can well come.

It should be noted that in the mid-1700s, the meaning of the word cousin changed to such a degree to make the earlier definition obsolete. In William Shakespeare’s time, it was common to refer to any kinsman to whom one was related as cousin which is why in the play “Much Ado About Nothing” Leonato says to his brother Antonio: “How now brother, where is my cousin, your son?

Medieval literature indicates that back in the day, cousin referred to any relative who was not your sibling or your parent but it could refer to a grandchild or a godchild as well as illegitimate children, especially those of men and women of the cloth). In other words, cousin had very broad applications during Medieval times.

It appears that across the centuries, the word cousin has been a generic word used to cover many levels of kinship.

Of note is the fact that in 1796, the term Kentish cousin was used to describe distant relatives who actually were cousins in the sense of the word as we understand it to mean in the 21st century.

However, the idiom kissing cousin in the sense it means in 2021 is, for the most part, a 20th century creation which is: A person, especially a relative, whom one knows well enough to kiss more or less formally upon meeting. That has been the accepted definition of the idiom since the 1930s.

At the end of the day, there isn’t anything naughty about kissing cousins, and there’s nothing shameful about referring to someone as a kissing cousin. So here’s a delightful photo of kissing cousins from the Michigan Daily newspaper of 15 July 1984 snapped by Rebecca Knight.

KISSING COUSINS, Michigan Daily, 15 July 1984

KISSING COUSINS, Michigan Daily, 15 July 1984

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