Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Daily Vocabulary

genealogy: the study and tracing of lines of birth and descent. In reading (again) The Shadow Over Innsmouth by the great H. P. Lovecraft, I was forced to ponder relations between the main character and his dark and shadowed ancestors. There's a couple of paragraphs in the last section piled thick with maternal grandparents and uncles and cousins and all of them referenced to each other, rather than to a common point like the main character. Which leads me to think that here in the United States we're not very good at genealogy. Sure, many of us look into our ancestry, and try to figure out how many generations back we come to a King of England or France (it's usually about 20, but results may vary). But most of us have little idea beyond say great grandparents, and we lose all track of collateral relatives: our third cousins, and that sort of thing. More than that, though, I think we lack much of the language to discuss genealogy. Lovecraft was writing in the 30s, mainly; Tolkien, in the 40s and 50s, had much the same command of various types of cousins and the like. But now, with our generally more limited families, we're pretty bad at using language to define where we lay in relation to family members. "Some sort of cousin", or "I think she was my great uncle's wife" or that sort of thing. We cannot figure out, though, that the great uncle's wife's brother's children are still some sort of cousin, or what sort. We cannot make these things work for us. We do not know, and in most cases do not care, how we relate. Which is fine and good, and very American, but can leave one a bit confused at times when someone who does know the lingo gets going.

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