It’s the holidays, and that means it’s time to hang out with all these unfamiliar people with familiar faces that we call family. For those of you trying to figure out exactly how all those kin across the table are related to you, I have some help.
Imagine you are standing on a flat plain. On the plain are all of your relatives. On the ground are neat lines connecting you. You have enough space between you to see, and enough visibility in any direction to find relatives (with the help of some binoculars). Everyone is facing forward, to the future.
Now, look behind you. The people directly behind you are your parents. Look behind you to the left and the right. Those are your uncles and aunts. Further away, your parent’s first cousins are standing in the same line. All of those people together make up your parent’s generation. Look past your parents and you can see your grandparents. Keep looking, into the cloudy distance, and you can see your great grandparents.
Now, look to your left and right. Next to you on either side are any siblings you have. Further off to the left and right are your first cousins. These people together make up your generation. If you look in front of you. You can see your children, nieces, and nephews, and some other people next to them that make up the next generation.
Why did I highlight the word generation? Well, we typically think of a generation as an age group. In this case, when I say “generation”, I mean the people on the same level of the family tree as you. So you and your siblings are in the same generation of the family tree, and so are you and your first cousins (the children of your mother or father’s siblings), even if you are 20 or more years apart in age.
So who are those people off in the distance past your first cousins, past your nieces and nephews? Knowing their generation helps us understand that. Most of them are cousins, but what kind?
Let’s start with your parents. The children of your parents are you and your siblings. So who are your children and your siblings children to each other? They’re obviously first cousins to each other. What makes them first cousins is that they share grandparents.
Let’s keep going. So let’s say those first cousins have kids. Who are those kids to each other? They’d be second cousins. They’re in the same generation and they share a great-grandparent. It goes on down the line the same way. Cousins in the same generation that have kids push the number up by one.
Now, let’s get a little more complicated. Who is your mom’s cousin to you? Well, your mother and she are first cousins. So that means that you and she are one generation apart. This makes her your first cousin once removed. The number of times removed indicate how many generations you are apart. Your child would be her first cousin twice removed.
The way to navigate family trees to give names to cousins is across, then down. Find the closest relative to you in the same generation as the person (nth cousin to the person), then connect them to you straight forward or backward across the generations (k times removed). Here are some handy rules of thumb:
First cousin — Your parents were siblings with their parents (so you share grandparents)
Second cousin — Your parents were first cousins (so you share great-grandparents)
First cousin once removed — Parent’s first cousin
Second cousin once removed — Parent’s second cousin
First cousin twice removed — Grandparent’s first cousin
Now, what about the nephews and nieces, aunts and uncles? Those are a little easier to navigate. Your parent’s siblings are your aunts and uncles. Your grandparent’s siblings are your great uncles and great aunts. And as you go up, you just keep adding greats. It’s the same in the other direction. Your children’s nephews and nieces are your great nephews and nieces. There’s no removal because nephew or niece are always a specific relationship one generation apart. The “greats” are used instead of times removed.
One last thing: it’s common for people to refer to first cousin once removed as “second cousin”. While it’s technically not the case, it’s not a big deal, so don’t end up in a fight over it if your know-it-all second cousin thrice removed belabors the point.
So have some fun giving all of your relatives their full relational names over the next few weeks, and enjoy the holiday season!