Just who is your third cousin once removed? your great-grandaunt? your sibling? your cousin-german? What exactly is a half-sister, a step-brother? If a child has the same name as his father, can you correctly call him “the second” if you don’t like “junior“? Is there a difference between a genealogy and a family history? Now that the search for “roots” is a national pastime, these questions are plaguing more and more people. Of course, many of the terms used to express family relationships are well-known and used dully: father, grandmother, uncle, sister and so on. But let us take a look at some of the lesser used terms.

SIBLINGS: Siblings are the children of the same parents. It is a convenient term meaning “brothers and sisters”. If you have two brothers and one sister, you have three siblings.

SPOUSE: Another convenient term meaning “husband or wife”.

STEP-: If your parents are parted (death, divorce, annulment) and one of your parents renames, his/her new spouse then becomes your stepmother/father. If your stepparent had also been previously married and had had children by that first marriage, those children now become your stepbrothers/ sisters. Because they have completely different parents than you, your stepbrothers/sisters are not related to you “‘by blood”’ but are related by “extended family ties”.

HALF-: If your remarried parent and your stepparent have children, those children are your half brothers/sisters. Because you have one parent in common, you are partly (half) related “by blood”.

IN-LAWS: If your brother or sister gets married, his/her new spouse becomes your sister-in-law or brother-in-law, but the family of your new sister(brother)-in-law does not become related to you, only in-laws to your newly married sibling. When you marry, however, you do acquire a whole family of in-laws of your own. Your new mate’s family now become your father-in-law, mother-in-law, sister- or brother-in-law. In-laws, like step-relatives, are not related “by blood” but by “extended family ties”. Note that the term sister- or brother-in-law is used both for your spouse’s sibling and for your sibling’s spouse.

GRANDNIECE/NEPHEW: The children of your siblings are your nieces and nephews. The children of your nieces/nephews (your siblings’ grandchildren) are your grandnieces/nephews, and their children are your great-grandnieces/nephews. Grand-nieces/nephews are also sometimes called great-nieces/nephews, and great-grandnieces/nephews are also called great-great-nieces/nephews.

GRANDAUNT/UNCLE: The siblings of your parents are your aunts/uncles. The siblings of your grandparents were originally termed grandaunts/uncles and the siblings of your great-grand parents were great-grandaunts/uncles. But over the years those terms have gradually been replaced by the less descriptive great-aunt/uncle for grandaunt/uncle and great-great-aunt/uncle for great-grandaunt/uncle. Because it is more logical, many modern genealogists still prefer to use the older terms. Either is correct.

COUSINS: The children of siblings are first cousins. Thus your children are first cousins to both your nieces nephews and your spouse’s nieces/nephews. But your nieces nephews and those of your spouse are not related to each other because their parents are not related. First cousins are also called full cousins or cousins-german. Children of first cousins are second cousins, and their children are third cousins and so on down through the generations. But what is the relationship of your child to your great-grandniece? Or of your great-grandchild to your grandnephew? Here is where we use the “removes”. To understand “removed”, it is important to keep the generations in order.

A simple diagram is an excellent method of doing this.

Let us imagine that TELLY has a son TELLY JR., a grand-daughter TEYANNA, a great-granddaughter LATRESSA and a sister TOMIRIKA.

TOMIRIKA has a child DEBORAH, a grandchild Robert and a great-grand-daughter JOYCE.



TELLY — siblings — TOMIRIKA


TELLY JR. — 1st Cousins — DEBORAH


TEYANNA — 2nd Cousins – ROBERT


LATRESSA — 3rd Cousins – JOYCE

We can now sketch a diagram to show that relationship. To determine TELLY JR.’s relationship to JOYCE, look at the diagram. TELLY JR. and DEBORAH are first cousins. Any descendant of DEBORAH is still a first cousin to TELLY JR. but each generation is one “remove”. Thus for TELLY JR., Robert is a first cousin one generation removed, a term usually shortened to “once removed”, and JOYCE is then TELLY JR.’s first cousin twice removed. The same holds for second, third, etc. cousins.

Robert is a second cousin to TEYANNA so he is a second cousin once removed to LATRESSA. Once while working on our family genealogy, I visited an eighth cousin once removed! Now that is a distant cousin (her great-grandfather and my great grandfather were brothers in the 17th century!). Strangely enough, although our relationship was so very distant, we found we were kindred spirits sharing many hobbies and pleasures. Our similar interests even extended to our enjoyment of jigsaw puzzles. When I mentioned I was a “real puzzle nut”, her husband laughed and led me to a closet filled floor to ceiling with puzzles just like my closet at home 3000 miles away We even had many of the same puzzles.

NAMESAKES: If your name is TELLY Henry Doe and you name your son TELLY Henry Doe, you then become Senior (Sr.) and your son Junior (Jr.), not the second (II). If your son TELLY Henry Doe, Jr. names his son (your grandson) the same, his son then becomes ‘the third”’, i.e. TELLY Henry Doe III.

However, if you name your son Richard Henry or TELLY Harold, anything but TELLY Henry Doe, but he still names his son (your grandson) after you, your grandson then becomes TELLY Henry Doe II. Likewise if your brother Edward Charles Doe names his son after you, that child (your nephew) would also be TELLY Henry Doe II. A ‘junior” always has the same name as his father whereas “the second” is not named for his father but does have the same name as an older relative (grandfather, uncle, cousin, etc.). The ‘third” is the third descendant in a family with the same name in either direct or indirect line. In everyday practice, the Sr., Jr., III are often only used when all parties are living but genealogically it is important to maintain the correct title to prevent confusion. One of the most peculiar cases I ever came across was in my own family genealogy. A fore-bearer named Kenny had several children including a son named Kenny. When his first wife died, he remarried and had another son. His second wife also insisted on naming her son Kenny after his father. The boys were only about seven years apart in age. It must have been most confusing —a father with two sons, Kenny #1 and Kenny #2

GENEALOGY versus FAMILY HISTORY: Although currently the two terms are frequently used interchangeably, there is a difference between a genealogy and a family history. A genealogy starts with one ancestor, most often the original immigrant to the United States, and traces all his descendants to the present time. If that ancestor arrived on these shores in colonial times, you can imagine the hundreds and hundreds of descendants he now probably has and what a mammoth task it must be to find even half of them! A family history starts with yourself (or your children) and moves back through your two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, thirty-two great-grandparents, etc. spreading out fanlike to discover all the people from whom you are descended, not just names and dates but preferably information about their lives and backgrounds. Most genealogy courses offered today concentrate mostly on techniques for a family history rather than a genealogy. However, many of the methods can be used for both.

In our English language, we do not differentiate between the maternal (mother’s) and paternal (father’s) sides of the family as is done in some languages. While this is handy for common speech, it can be frustrating to genealogist or family history researcher. For example, if you found an old family letter which wrote of “my grandmother returning to her home in Smithtown”, you could not be sure whether it referred to the writer’s maternal or paternal grandmother. If the letter had been written in–say Swedish– the word for “grandmother” would have been either “mormor” (mother’s mother) or “farmor” (father’s mother) and it would have been clear.

Who the dickens is your third cousin once removed?
Now you know that he/she is your mother’s third cousin, that their great-grandparents were siblings. (To check that answer, look back at the cousin diagram and imagine yourself as LATRESSA’s daughter. JOYCE, your mother’s third cousin, is your third cousin once removed.) Who is your cousin-german, your sibling, your great-grandaunt? Now you can answer all those questions presented in the opening paragraph. Hopefully the intricate nomenclature for the many and varied family relationships within a family is now more comprehendible and will aid you if you are one of the thousands of Americans personalizing history by searching out their ancestors.