Monday, August 30, 2004

(17-2) What is a Relative?

Identifying Uncles, Aunts, and Cousins

By Betty Eichhorn
Brevard Genealogical Society

Many people have difficulty figuring out relationships of their distant relatives. Part of the problem is nomenclature and the other is not understanding how relationships are established.

I have read arguments on whether the brother of one of your grandparents is a greatuncle or a granduncle. I plead for granduncle as it is easier to identify the generation to which he belongs. A granduncle is a brother of one of your grandparents. A great granduncle is a brother of one of your great grandparents. And so on back thru the generations. It’s grandaunt too. Take a look at the chart below. See how granduncle and grandaunt fit in. Using greatuncle would be very confusing.

Click to enlarge chart
Now on to cousins. On the chart, make believe you are the person in the box (lower left) labeled “YOU’. The chart shows the descendants of your great, great grandparents, including siblings (your aunts and uncles) of your ancestors. Every person in the chart is a blood relative and has been given a title of grandparent, parent, uncle, aunt, or cousin, based on their relationship to you, not to each other.

Cousins are descendants of your uncles and aunts of any generation. What degree the cousins are depends on their relationship to your ancestors. Notice that all cousins that are in the same generation as you are first, second, third, or other whole number of cousin. Trace each of these cousins back to the first ancestor that each of you share. The results for them are:


First cousin

Second cousin

Third cousin

Common ancestors


great grandparents

great, great grandparents

No. of ‘g’s




Now count the number of ‘g’s in the common ancestors. Notice that the common ancestors for first cousin has one ‘g’, for second cousin has 2, and third cousin has 3. The numbers are valid as far back in time as you wish to go. A tenth cousin has at least one of the same great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents as you do.

In some cases, you and your cousins may share just one ancestor rather than two. This happens when an ancestor has children by more than one spouse, as when one remarries after a death or divorce. Then those cousins will be half cousins, similar to half brothers and half sisters.

OK, on to removed cousins. No, you don’t throw them away. “First cousin once removed” means “first cousin one generation removed.” The children of your first cousins are one generation removed from the first cousin level. The grandchildren of your first cousins are two generations removed so they would be ‘first cousins twice removed.”

To compute removed cousins, again find the closest common ancestors. Use the cousin who is closest to the common ancestors to figure the cousin relationship (first, second, third, ...). Then take the difference in the generations and that is the number removed. For example, the common ancestors of you and Tony (bottom middle of chart) are your great grandparents (2 ‘g’s). He is four generations from them and you are three (4 - 3 = 1). You and he are second cousins once removed.

Another example. Lois (far right on chart) and you have your great, great grandparents in common. But Lois is only two generations from your gg grandparents and you are four. Since Lois is closer to the common ancestors, use her grandparents (your gg grandparents) to figure the cousin relationship, which becomes first cousin. Since you are two generations apart, you and Lois are first cousins, twice removed. Another way to look at it is from Lois’ perspective. To her, you are the grandchild of her first cousin, who is one of your grandparents.

Lois is referred to as a cousin in the ascendancy or an ascendant cousin as she is an ancestor of one of your full (whole numbered) cousins. Tony is a cousin in the descendancy or a descendant cousin because he is a descendant of one of your full cousins. Of course, from Lois’s perspective, you are a descendant cousin and from Tony’s perspective, you are an ascendant cousin. And of course you can just ignore those terms, as I do. (Note: an asterisk in the chart indicates a descendant cousin.)

Charts of relationship appear in books but they don’t show how the relationships occur. I hope this helps the next time you locate a new cousin. Perhaps like me, you will find a fourth cousin once removed who had researched the family two generations further back than I had.

[Rev. 8/06/06]


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