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What to call distant relatives

Kinship terminology: How to refer to your family relationships

The Findmypast team
30 April 2021

Distinguishing your third cousins twice removed from your second cousins thrice removed can be a real head-scratcher. This useful guide to kinship terminology should help.

Isn't it exciting to find out you have a historical icon in the far-off depths of your family tree? But when you brag to your friends, what do you call this famous ancestor? What does second cousin twice removed actually mean?

"Thomas Edison is the great-uncle of my great-great-grandfather's third cousin!"

Confusing, right?

It doesn't have to be. If you're familiar with the system used in designating these relationships, you'll see there's a consistent formula to the kinship titles we assign to various family members. So the next time you ask what relation someone in your family tree is to you, it should be straightforward to work out.

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In English-speaking societies, family relationships are classified based on gender, generation, consideration of consanguinity (direct descendants) and immediate affinal (in-law) relationships. For example;

Our common familiarity is with immediate family and direct lines, so brother, sister, cousins, aunts/uncles and (great) grandparents. It can start to get confusing when differentiating between the "degrees" and "removals" of cousins. We're here to help you make sense of your family ties with this handy guide.

First, second and third cousins

The ordinals in this system, "first cousin", "second cousin", "third cousin", all describe the degree of the cousin relationship or the number of generations to their closest ancestor. For example, your second cousin is a person you share great-grandparents with and is not your direct sibling. It's easier to think of what your shared ancestors would call you both - if your closest shared direct ancestor is your great-great-grandparents, and they call you both "great-great-grandchildren," then you have no removal, you are third cousins.

Once, twice, thrice removed

When the cousins are not in the same generation then they are "removed. "First cousins once removed" declares that either one of you is one generation away from being first cousins. For example, if your first cousin has children, they are your first cousins once removed. The closest common ancestor shared are your grandparents but are "once removed" from the level of first cousin (held by their parents).

Family relationship chart

This Table of Consanguinity shows the degrees of relationships between you and distant branches of your family tree.

Here is where it can get confusing. There are two instances in your family tree that can be considered 'once removed'. This is a reflection of what cousins refer to each other as. Up until now, each relationship in your family tree has inverse titles for each other. You are your aunt's niece or nephew; you are your great-grandparents' great-grandchild. However, cousins refer to each other as cousins. Because of this, your first cousin's child is your first cousin once removed and you (the parent of their second cousin) are also their first cousin once removed - so you each refer to each other in the same way. This means that the child of your first cousin and the parents of your second cousin are both "first cousins once removed", despite each of them being generations apart.

Yes, it's tricky to wrap your head around. Here is a breakdown to make things simpler to understand.

  • First cousins are non-siblings that share grandparents
  • Second cousins are non-siblings that share great-grandparents
  • Third cousins are non-siblings that share great-great-grandparents
  • First cousins once removed are two people for whom the first cousin relationship is one generation removed
  • First cousins twice removed are two people for whom the second cousin relationship is two generations removed

And if you think this family naming convention is confusing, at least it is formulaic. In Chinese culture, individual terms are used for every relationship.

So, now you know what to call your distant relations, the below video should make more sense now.

Grow your family tree for free

One of the easiest ways to make sense of all the different branches of your family tree is to store them on Findmypast's free online builder. With it, you can see family relationships plotted out neatly in one place. Plus, each relative gets their own profile to fill with stories, photos, records and memories from the past. And when you've run out of new relatives to add your tree, our clever hints can introduce you to the ones you know nothing about.