There is no such word! In English, that is.
In some other languages, yes. But not English.
This word fascinates me despite the fact that it doesn’t exist. Or, perhaps more aptly, because it doesn’t exist.
Either way, it speaks volumes about our English-speaking society, the relationships we value – and those we do not.
As a married couple, Cheri and I are each other’s “next of kin” even though we aren’t close blood relatives. (I say “close” only because all of us, somewhere in our interlocking family trees, share common ancestors.)
Cheri’s sister, Zephyr, is my “sister-in-law” notwithstanding that lack of blood kinship. Even Zephyr’s husband, James, is my “brother-in-law”. Zephyr’s daughter, Jamil, is my “niece”, and Jamil’s daughter my “grand-niece”. For all these flavors of kinship – and many more, whether by marriage or by bloodline – we have English words.
But my father, Felix, and Cheri’s father, Fred – what was their family connection? What was its name?
Cheri being fluent in kinship labels, I asked her about it. After a moment’s thought, she said, “Well, there’s no word for that, because they aren’t related.”
The same is true, of course, of Cheri’s mom, Winnie, and my mom, Charmian. And of my dad and Cheri’s mom, and Cheri’s dad and my mom: None of them are related; they aren’t family.
What!? Of course they are family! To each other, I mean – not just to their in-law children. Their kinship is far closer than that of me to, say, my “third cousin-in-law twice removed”. (I almost certainly have such cousins-in-law, though I have no idea who they might be or how to locate them.)
We thus have English names for remote, convoluted, hypothetical family ties with little bearing on real-world interactions. According to the conventions of our language, however, the parents of married children are unrelated!
It isn’t so in Spanish. There, the parents of married children are “consuegros”, which translates roughly as “co-in-laws”.
The corresponding term in Yiddish is “machatunim” or “mechatunim” (depending on regional dialect). This also translates as “co-in-laws”.
In Greek the terms are “sympatheroi” (plural), “sympathera” (feminine singular) and “sympatheros” (masculine singular). These literally translate as “co-parents”, suggesting even closer kinship than “co-in-laws”.
Wiktionary.com suggests the hybrid term “co-parents-in-law”, while acknowledging that this expression is “rare in conversation” and usually stated simply as “in-laws” with “context left to disambiguate”. Uh, yeah, sure – whatever.
This mealy-mouthed disclaimer strikes me as little more than a polite way of admitting that no such English word really exists. “Co-parents-in-law” isn’t generally accepted or recognized. Kludgy mouthful that it is, I don’t expect to hear it gaining traction anytime soon.
Be that as it may, Wiktionary cites the term as having equivalents in Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin, French, Hebrew, Inupiak, Italian, Korean, Malay, Pitjantjatjara, Tagalog, Turkish, and Kannada, probably among others.
The Greek kinship label noted above isn’t mentioned. Is that a simple Wiktionary oversight? Or does “sympatheroi”, by dropping the in-law connotation, fail Wiktionary’s test for a sufficiently close translation?
If so, that’s the very reason I like the Greek concept of “co-parents”! This strikes me as both more accurate and more socially enlightened than adding yet another tier of in-laws.
If I’m one of four people who speak and think of themselves as co-parents of married children, then we must feel bonded indeed. To each other as parents, not just to our blood children. Real relatives, not just strangers eyeing each other suspiciously across a chasm.
“Co-parent” also implies that both offspring, by becoming joined in marriage, now are real children to the parents on both sides. In purely linguistic terms, this distinction may seem subtle. In real-world societal terms, it is profound, even life-changing.
For that reason, I’ve always disliked the term “in-law”. It implies a relationship that isn’t really real – that exists mainly as a legal formality. Too often, that’s exactly how we think about our in-laws.
Words, to be sure, reflect our cultural outlook. But they also shape and reinforce that outlook. Is that not happening here?
My own cultural background was starkly different: A kinship by marriage was as real – and as enduring – as any blood relationship.
I’m not sure how much of this attitude arose from the culture of my own (very large) extended family, and how much from that of the rural Appalachian tribe to which we belonged. Probably some of both.
No matter. Growing up, I rarely heard of “in-laws” (whether parents or children). Such distinctions weren’t unknown – they simply didn’t seem high on anyone’s radar.
This I know: The moment Cheri and I married, she was my parents’ daughter in every way that counted. Introducing her in some hypothetical context where clarity demanded it, they might have said “daughter-in-law”. Normally, though, they just didn’t think that way.
I could have dropped dead five minutes after the wedding. Cheri, in that case, would have remained my parents’ daughter – their real daughter – till the end of time. My death would only have cemented her daughterhood.
It was therefore unsettling for me to marry into a family reflecting a completely opposite cultural paradigm. A son-in-law was an outsider by definition, existing in permanent probationary limbo.
To be clear, this was never Cheri’s attitude. Her outlook matched the one I had inherited. Nor could I blame her parents and certain other family members for their skepticism. Past in-laws, having joined the tribe, had established less-than-stellar track records. There’s that twice-burned-once-shy thing (or something along those lines).
That made little practical difference to me. If anything had happened to Cheri, or to our marriage, I would have vanished from the family tree in a puff of smoke.
Since Cheri’s parents barely thought of themselves as (technically and for the moment) related to me, I doubt they considered any connection with my parents. One can’t really fault them for that, since they never met my parents (who had been unable to attend our wedding).
I’m also not sure how, or to what extent, my parents considered themselves related to Cheri’s. It’s a question I wish I had thought to ask.
What I do know is that I’d have loved to be part of a tight family unit consisting of Cheri, me, and our four co-parents. Knowing that all four of our parents felt as related to one another as she and I did.
In many languages, that is the living reality. But not in English. Not yet, anyway. Give it time!
(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)