1 : very young : immature <shirttail boys fishing in the creek>
2 : distantly and indefinitely related <a shirttail cousin on her father's side>
As I work through the process of revising the Callin Family History, I'm spending a lot of time looking for missing branches of the family tree and following direct descendants through multiple surnames. There are a lot of folks - and I mean hundreds of them - I would have thought of as "distantly and indefinitely related" before I started on this project. They're the kinds of relatives that you kind of ignore when you're trying to wrap your head around your genealogical past and limit the amount of work you plan to do.
I have almost used it to describe some of the families I've been working on this month, but I'm still somewhat on the fence over whether I like this term or not. It seems vaguely dismissive, though I'm sure it's not intended that way. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. As I work down through history, tracing generations of people who share a common ancestor with me, I can't help feeling sad when I get to the end of the trail, and find that their line of the family has petered out.
For one example, I started with a couple - James and Margaret Callin - who were cousins (I know, let's move past that for now) that married and moved to Iowa from Ohio around 1840. It isn't clear what happened to them, but both James and Margaret died around 1845. My 3x-great grandfather, William, drove a wagon out from Ohio and brought back their two little sons, William and Warren. It isn't certain who raised the boys - the Callin Family History says William was raised by the Day family in Huron county - but we know they grew up and enlisted in the Union Army. Warren was a musician who died during the Civil War, and William's unit was captured, and spent several years at Andersonville prison.
After the war, William married Theodocia Johnson, and they had one daughter, Edith. Edith married Oley Hanley, and their son, Lyle, died in 1935, leaving a widow, but no children.
The term "shirttail" seems apt, here, just because of that visual - a loose end; a leaf at the tip of a branch. But I'm uncomfortable thinking of people that way. It's not as if Lyle wasn't important, just because he didn't pass his genes along! And it's not 100% clear that I didn't simply get that fact wrong - there could well be a clan of Hanleys out there yet to be discovered!
(If you happen to be one of them, let me know - as the title suggests, I'm looking for you!)
There is another sense of the word that may only be in may head; I tend to associate it with relatives who don't share my surname. Obviously, Lyle Hanley is every bit as direct a descendant of James 1st as I am - but our cultural tradition of having women take their husband's name can quickly obscure that direct relationship. Ann Callin, Frances Campbell, Agnes Hoot, Rea Barrick - and who knows who Rea might have married? Whatever surname her children had, they have every bit as much reason to be interested in their many-greats-grandfather as I do!
So, if you see or hear me using that term to describe people in my family tree, it's probably best to assume that I'm using it with a kind of melancholy affection. Affection for family, melancholy for the inevitable distance, and in the case of folks like Lyle, for the early end to their story. Sometimes it's hard to put the effort into tracing their line, but their stories are worth remembering.