Let’s Get Something Straight: Cousins

I don’t consider myself a pedant, though sometimes I can’t help but appear as one.  I don’t care if people think I’m smart (which is the motive of a true pedant), I just can’t stand the idea of people moving blindly through life in their (easily corrected) ignorance.  This usually happens with grammar, with a fairly wide “bite-my-tongue-or-not” scale.  On the low end would be someone not using the word “whom.”  It’s easy to let that one go.  On the higher end would be someone saying something like, “While you’re there, could you also pick up some napkins for she and I?”  Grumble.  Yet it’s not just grammar . . . another area is music: such as a particular chord being called a “C2” instead of a “C(add9),” or needless usage of slash chords, like writing “F/D” instead of just writing “Dm7,” or calling the gap between the 6th and 7th degrees of a harmonic minor scale a “minor 3rd” instead of an “augmented 2nd.”  Another area is badly informed pop culture trivia . . . like the time some guy told me in the utmost confidence that the first Die Hard movie came out in the late 90’s, or when someone told me that they knew for a fact that Johnny Depp finished some of Heath Ledger’s scenes from The Dark Knight.

As you can see, these categories are becoming more and more ridiculous . . . but I can’t help it.  It eats at my very being.  Eventually, I have to speak up.

So this brings us to possibly the oddest one . . . naming of cousins using degrees and removals.  I think the popular aversion to properly labeling our cousins stems not only from its seeming complexity, but from the fact that 21st century American culture (and I would imagine much of the Western world) doesn’t keep track of family beyond first, and maybe second, cousins.  Add to that fact the rather confusing nature of how to properly label someone who is a cousin, and you end up with people not ignoring the system altogether, but misusing it.

Well it is my goal that after you have finished reading this post, you will have a thorough understanding of how to correctly determine your relation to that girl you almost asked out before she mentioned that you’re related somehow.

Let’s begin.

First, you need to know the difference between a DEGREE and a REMOVAL.

A degree is likely the more familiar term.  In the context of a cousin relation, it is the “first” in “first cousin” or “third” in “third cousin,” etc.  It means how many branches out the individual is in your family tree from you.  From what I can tell, you and your first cousin are such because that is the FIRST time in the descent of your common ancestral line that two people are cousins at all, in a horizontal sense.  You and your second cousin are such because it is the second time, your parents being the first.  And so on with third, fourth, etc.

A removal is the more confusing part, but you’re likely familiar with phrases like “second cousin, twice removed.”  This is the vertical movement in the family tree, whereas a degree is horizontal.   It is a shift either up or down through a generation (or we could say a “degree”).  And that is, of course, “generation” in the family sense, where grandpa and grandma are one generation, mom plus your aunts and uncles are the next, you and your siblings and first cousins are the next, and all of your kids are the next, etc.  So a “second cousin, twice removed” is someone who is the grandchild (or grandparent) of your second cousin–or, another way of looking at it, they are the first cousin of your grandparent.

The most commonly made mistake I see is people referring to the child of their first cousin as their second cousin.  This is incorrect.  YOUR child will be second cousins with that child.  YOU, however, are a first cousin, once removed to them, and vice versa.

I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs to further explain how this works, but illustrations work really well for this.  Plus I get to make stuff in Excel.

So, to start, this is our simplified family tree, where we pretend that the only people in your family that had more than one child for two generations back and three generations forward were your grandparents.

Degrees (first cousin, second cousin, etc.) only occur in a horizontal sense.

So as you can see, your child and your first cousin’s child are second cousins, and your great-grandchildren are fourth cousins.  This is exactly in the same sense as YOUR second cousin is the child of your parent’s first cousin, and YOUR fourth cousin is the great-grandchild of your great-grandparent’s first cousin (or, if you wish, the great-great grandchild of your great-great-great uncle).

Now, what is your relation to your first cousin’s great-grandchild?

Since we’re going down in generations, it will be easiest to first determine the degree.  We must ask, “what degree of cousin is this individual descended from?”  Well . . .

First degree.

We should note here that this means anyone directly descended from your first cousin will always be a “FIRST cousin, X-times removed” to you (and you to them).  Likewise, anyone descended from your second cousin is a “second cousin, x-times removed” to you, and so on.  We’ve determined that this individual is some kind of first cousin, so now we need to find how many removals there are.

So how many removals are there?


Your relation to your first cousin’s great-grandchild is FIRST COUSIN, THRICE REMOVED.  Or “three times removed” if you don’t want to sound pretentious.

“Hold on,” you might be saying if you’re observant enough.  “That could also be ‘fourth cousins, thrice removed’ if you start with the first cousin’s great-grandchild’s relationship to your great-grandchild, and then remove back to you.”  That is true, but the smaller degree available is always considered the degree.

Let’s do one more so we can be sure that we’re all taking this home today.

What’s your great-grandchild’s relation to your first cousin’s grandchild?

We’re now going up in generations.  The relation is the same in either direction, but this time it will be easier determining the removal first, by going up one generation to your grandchild, and then determining what degree of cousins they are.

For the sake of brevity I’ve done both steps here:

So your great-grandchild will be third cousins, once removed, to your first cousin’s grandchild.

It’s interesting how distant these relations get with relatively small numbers involved.  A few years ago I met a woman on Facebook who was a distant cousin.  She knew her lineage better than I knew my own, so we both traced our ancestors back until we found a common ancestor.  We’re sixth cousins (no removals).  That means our first common ancestors are our great-great-great-great-great grandfather and grandmother.  I don’t know much about that grandmother, but that grandfather was born in the 1710’s or 1720’s and emigrated to Pennsylvania from modern-day western Germany as a boy with his parents.  She and I are each seven generations descended from two of his sons, which makes us, as I said, sixth cousins–which to me seems like a small number for over 250 years of descent.

So I hope this has been informative.  There’s a lot to it, I know, and I also know that not everyone finds it as fascinating as I do, and therefore have no intentions of ever trying to figure any of it out.

If that’s the case, let me offer to you a couple of wonderful terms of neutrality.


“Distant cousin”

See?  Perfect.  While “cousin” by itself usually implies first cousins, it can absolutely be expanded to mean a more distant relation.  And when you want to emphasize that you are NOT first cousins, you say “distant cousins,” thus establishing that your parents are not siblings, and not bugging the heck out of me when I notice you’re using the wrong terms.  Remember, we all play a part in making sure Braden’s brain doesn’t pop from trying to be polite.


One response to “Let’s Get Something Straight: Cousins

  1. Well, Braden, a couple of things:
    1. Bravo for your work in putting this down on paper, er, computer. I’ve been trying to explain this to a 4th cousin of mine for years. This will make it easier.
    2. Longshot here……you wouldn’t happen to be the Braden from NE Pennsylvania who also enjoys camping by the railroads, would you? I only ask because it is not a super-common name.
    3. Addressing one of your earlier observations about grammar: Doesn’t it just drive you up a wall when people say “There’s three of them.”????!!!!! This makes me totally insane, the improper use of singular/pleural……. and it is even done by Nationally televised journalists on network news and the Weather Channel!!! It seems like only 1 out of every 10 people say it correctly!!
    4. An unrelated petpeeve of mine: You dial a telephone number, and you get these 3 obnoxious tones followed by “We’re sorry, your call could not be completed as dailed. If you feel you’ve reached this recording in error, please hang up and dial again.” They completely BLAME YOU for the screw up. They never tell you what to do if you feel it was THEM that effed up!! This infuriates me. 😉
    5. I thoroughly enjoyed your post!

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