The idiom shirttail relative, rarely heard nowadays, refers to someone who is distantly related and often forgotten.
The phrase came up when my wife, who was tracking Hurricane Irma on her computer, looked up from the screen and distractedly asked if I had any relations in harm’s way. ”Maybe. Just a few shirttail relatives,” I replied. To which she responded, “What’s that?”
What’s that? Indeed.
The etymological record of shirttail relative is sparse. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the word shirttail first appeared in 1809, and was used, as it is today, to describe the bottom part of a shirt that is tucked into trousers. But to get to the idiomatic use of “shirttail” in the expression shirttail relative, we turn to British master word-detective Michael Quinion who’s website quotes the following from the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE):
“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.’ ”
I’m only surmising, but perhaps the image conjured up by the term shirt-tail boys, of Americans living in so remote a locale as to be almost foreigners, made other Americans associate shirttail with distant relatives, and sure enough, again according to Mr. Quinion:
“DARE has examples from 1927 forwards, such as shirt-tail kin and shirt tail cousin, as well as [shirttail relative].”
Another idiomatic use of shirttail, cited by the online Free Dictionary, describes the adjectival use of the word as denoting something “of little value; inadequate or small.” Here I’m guessing that the above definition emerged from a common opinion that this part of a shirt’s structure was considered plain and inconsequential; after all, once a shirt is worn and tucked in, the wearer cannot even see his or her shirttail and may soon give little thought of it. Which, when you think of it, is a way of describing long-lost-from-memory relatives.
The Good Mayor
It’s not every day that a relative, distant or not, like my “uncle”Anton Cermak, is portrayed in a hit TV show. But that was the case back in February 25, 1960, in The Untouchables, a TV gangster series set in the 1930s.
Anton Cermak, was a considerably distant cousin of my grandfather Otto. Cermak served as the 34th mayor of Chicago, Illinois, from April 7, 1931 until his death on March 6, 1933, dying from complications arising from a failed assassination attempt on the life of then President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As I learned at both my father’s and his father’s knees, Cermak was a master of big city machine politics, and was considered a fairly decent mayor, at least by Chi-town standards. But what really canonized Cermak for America’s entire Bohemian community, including my family, was the widely held belief that he died a bona fide hero for taking a bullet meant for FDR.
Now that’s some shirttail relative.