shirt-tail cousin (was: arms length relative)

Mark Mandel thnidu at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jun 1 01:05:58 UTC 2009

On Sat, May 30, 2009 at 1:08 AM, Herb Stahlke <hfwstahlke at> wrote:
> "shirt-tail cousin."

Google turns up a folk etymology for this phrase--
> Often I have received questions asking how a person is related to the sister of their husband's brother-in-law and other obscure relationships. The answer is there is no relationship. When a marriage is the only connection between two individuals, then there is no cousinship in the true sense of the word. The most you can claim with this person is a shirt tail cousin. The cousinship is riding on the shirt tails of someone.

as well as Michael Quinion's more reliable one--
> ... It’s usually said to refer to somebody who is a relative by marriage or is only distantly related, such as a fourth cousin, or is a family friend with honorary status as a relative. It’s fairly common in the USA and has been since the 1950s or thereabouts.
>    ... Early DARE examples suggest that they were indeed often derogatory. One from 1945 says, “Sometimes with the implication that these are not the relatives of which one is proudest”. Shirt-tail here seems in particular to be linked with poverty. There are examples much earlier of shirt-tail boy, for a young person. A 1922 book about the Appalachians remarks, “It still is common in many districts of the mountain country for small boys to go about through the summer in a single abbreviated garment and that they are called ‘shirt-tail boys’.”

Mark Mandel

The American Dialect Society -

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