In almost every family, there seems to be at least one person who is really interested in the family tree, looking up ancestors from wherever and putting together charts and so on. I think the internet has probably been an amazing boon to these people. Myself, as far as family history goes, I am interested in the people that there are photos of. If you’re going into pre-photograph times (unless you can dig up some portraits, I suppose), I find it pretty hard to feel connected to that history.
I bring this up because it recently occurred to me that future generations are going to have a lot more complicated a time putting together those trees. Think about it: not that many generations ago, people worked hard on a farm or in a factory or whatever. There weren’t vaccines, life was rough, there was a war every few decades, and for one reason or another, they tended to die young. It didn’t leave a lot of time for divorces and remarriages. I mean, sure, there was Henry VIII, but I gather he was an exception. For most people, we’re talking about pretty clean charts.
The world has changed. Fewer people are bound by religions that dictate their personal lives. And for those who are, a lot of those religions have loosened up a bit. People live a long long time. They have more ambitious expectations about what life (and relationships) should bring them. They have the time and leisure to get bored. Enter: divorce. Enter: remarriage. Enter: more kids.
I think about my own family as an example, and very quickly, that chart needs to develop 3D technology. I have five blood uncles. I have first wave aunts and second wave aunts, I have aunts who actually have no blood or legal connection to me, but still matter a lot. (I suppose technically the first wave of aunts are no longer my aunts, but how can that be right? How can someone who was an aunt for however many years suddenly not be an aunt anymore? And what would one of their later spouses be to me? Officially nothing, but really, there’s a connection there too.) I have aunts and uncles-in-law. I have regular cousins, half cousins, honorary cousins, step-cousins, cousins-in-law, ex-step-cousins, second cousins, and cousins I haven’t met. I have half-siblings and a brother.
While I probably made up some of those terms to try to explain relationships that I’m not sure there are words for, I hate those terms. They are awful words that assign rank to people I care about. Am I supposed to love my half-brother half as much as the brother I share both parents with? I am not close to everyone who is related to me, not by a long stretch, (I recently connected with some cousins who I hadn’t seen in over twenty years) but they all matter. And none of them ever stopped mattering just because two pieces of this ridiculously convoluted equation couldn’t keep it together. Having words that show the many ways that parts of a family somehow have less status than other parts is creating exclusion where it doesn’t need to be.
So I’m throwing out the prefixes. I have cousins and aunts and uncles. I have brothers and a sister. They are all my family, so why make it any more complicated than that? For that matter — as I’m sure my family isn’t that unique — why should anyone?
The only reason I can think of is clarity for those poor family tree researchers years down the road. Sorry, genealogists of the future. I guess you’ve got your work cut out for you.