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where Danish has “onkel” for both. Vocabulary: In discussing relationships. Even native English speakers can be confused by some of our relationship terms. and even distinguish different relationships. and English has “uncle”. Swedish calls your mother’s brother “morbror” and your father’s brother “farbror”.)  spouse = husband or wife  child = son or daughter (even if an adult)  parent = mother or father The Basics Before getting into “third cousin once removed”. in-law. English makes some distinctions that other languages do not. I’ll use the word “sibling” in its more restricted meaning: an individual who has the same two parents as you. he suggested others might be interested. and“half” or “step” relations. And according to the Encyclopædia Britannica. . Polynesian languages use the same words for male and female cousins as for brothers and sisters.Different languages have different terms for relationships. (In Latin they were “avunculus” and “patruus”. After we had worked that out (see Example 2). phrases like “brother or sister” and “son or daughter” come up again and again. This would include the relationships of half brother and half sister as well as full brother and sister. For instance. What follows is an expanded and more general form of our discussion. In English. each of these terms can correctly be used for several different relationships.) On the other hand. three sets of terms seem to cause the most difficulty: cousin. Yourdaughter-in-law and your stepdaughter are both your “belle-fille” in French. In this document. it’s good to understand the common terms. A friend asked me to help him figure out what relation he was to his mother’s aunt’s greatgrandson. Here are standard gender-neutral terms that I’ll use to shorten the following discussion:  sibling = brother or sister (Some dictionaries call two individuals siblings if they have one or both parents in common. Just to make things messy. Please have a look at the following table.

father’s sister’s husband. A separate section below details all the words used to describe cousin relationships. Nephew There are standard words for collateral relationships. and H and W are the father and mother (parents) of B0 and C0. or mother’s sister’s husband.H = W | ----------------------| B0(M)=Z0(F) | B1 | B2 | etc. mother’s brother. Going down one generation. and all their descendants.  C0 is B1‘s aunt. Aunt. . Uncle. we have four common relationships:  B0 is C1‘s uncle. or mother’s brother’s wife. B0 and C0 are brother and sister. father’s brother’s wife. B1 and C1. and H and W are therefore the grandparents (grandfather and grandmother) of B1 and C1. H and W (a husband and wife) are the common ancestors of this family. “aunt” in English could mean your father’s sister. Children of your aunt or uncle are your first cousins. where neither person is directly descended from the other. Most people would say Z0 is also C1‘s aunt. Again. Most English speakers use “uncle” for any of four relationships: father’s brother. Niece.  C1 is the niece or nephew of B0. B0 and C0 are the son and daughter (children) of H and W. | C0(F) | C1 | C2 | etc. More generally. or more generically siblings. are cousins to each other. on one side only. mother’s sister. most people would say C1 is also the niece or nephew of Z0. B1 and C1 are the grandchildren (grandsons and grand daughters) of H and W.

Being one generation removed from the relative specified. and collectively godsons and goddaughters would be godchildren. and may even be addressed as “aunt” and “uncle”. it is common for children to call their parents’ friends “Aunt Flo” and “Uncle Ed”. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Third Edition. . Perhaps because I grew up with this. in some families they stand in the position of relatives to the child. as explained below. in other words. Hendricks”. may speak of their godson or goddaughter. 1992) says that the unhyphenated spellings “great aunt” etc. who are H and W’s grandchildren. The godparents. Apply this definition to B2 and C2. Instead. but most give little difficulty to native speakers. and so on. 15. language is not logical: there are no great-cousins. in turn. are equally acceptable. The collateral relationships can be “great”.Godparents Many children have godparents chosen for them by their parents. too. That makes C2 their great-niece or great-nephew. While the godparents are not necessarily relatives. the terminology is cousins so many times removed. Often used in combination: a great-granddaughter. They are one generation below B1 and C1. The one that concerns us here is great adj. Terms Involving “In-law” There are several of these. they are the great-aunt and great-uncle of C2. Since B0 and Z0 are the aunt and uncle of C1. B3 and C3 would be the greatgreat-grandchildren of H and W. If we drew the family tree another generation down. H and W in turn are the great-grandparents (great-grandfather and great-grandmother) of B2 and C2. Therefore B2 and C2 are H and W’s great-grandchildren. and listsgrandaunt etc. 1992) gives sixteen definitions of the adjective “great”. Honorary Aunts and Uncles In some sections of the country.) Unfortunately. and Mrs. one of us is a blood relative of the other’s spouse. for example in Christian denominations at the time of baptism. Any relationship term ending with -in-law indicates that the relationship is by marriage and not by blood. as less common forms. Terms Involving “Great” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Third Edition. it has always seemed charming to me: more respectful than first-naming them. much warmer than “Mr.

the brother of my spouse. “brothers-in-law” and not “brotherin-laws”. that’s a nice way of recognizing long-term relationships that don’t involve a traditional marriage. it’s a bit confusing to use the term “in-LAW” for relationships that are not recognized by law. Betty has a sister Bonnie.If I want to refer collectively to the blood relatives of my spouse. 1992). other times it can mean any group of my spouse’s relatives. by the way.) Consider the following example: Al marries Betty. but not by all authorities. the wife of my brother. Brother-in-Law. Mother-. Father-. And the plural is formed on the part before the “-in-law”. or 2. not sons-in-law or daughters-in-law.) Similarly. In-law relationship terms are always written with hyphens. who marries Calvin. 1992). If my spouse has children from a previous marriage. but there is some controversy about the third (and I personally don’t accept it). not their father-inlaw or mother-in-law. If my own parents get divorced and remarry. my brother-in-law could be 1. and Daughter-in-Law My father-in-law is the father of my spouse. On the one hand. those are my stepchildren. I can call them “my in-laws". or 3. All authorities agree on the first two meanings. my mother-in-law is the mother of my spouse. the husband of my spouse’s sister. (This meaning is accepted by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Third Edition. I am their stepfather or stepmother. Sometimes this term means just my spouse’s parents. which is always plural. the sister of my spouse. the wife of my son is my daughter-inlaw. but not by all authorities. (This meaning is accepted by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Third Edition. it is becoming more common to say “daughter-in-law” of the woman my son or daughter has lived with for a long time. The only exception is the general term “in-laws”. My sister-in-law could be: 1. not my mother-in-law and father-in-law. “Brother-in-law” and “sister-in-law” each have two or three meanings. for example. On the other hand. the husband of my sister. Sister-in-Law These are the only really tricky in-law terms. the wife of my spouse’s brother. or 2. . or 3. their new spouses are my stepparents. Son-. In these days of more fluid relationships. The husband of my daughter is my son-in-law.

see below). So much is agreed.. brothers and sisters... you are just two men who married sisters.Harry = Sally | + -------------------| Al = Betty | Bonnie = Calvin The siblings-in-law:  Al is Bonnie’s brother-in-law (definition 2). This section explains more specific terms for various degrees of the cousin relationship.....C0 | | B1.. the advice columnist.siblings....... and Bonnie is Al’s sister-in-law (definition 1). I admit that it’s awkward for Al to refer to Calvin as “my wife’s brother-in-law” or “my sister-in-law’s husband”. (If they have only one parent in common the relationship needs the modifier “half”. The question is.C2 . are Al and Calvin brothers-in-law (definition 3)? Someone once wrote to Ann Landers.. Ann replied: “You are no relation.. Other relatives who are descended from a common ancestor are generally called cousins. H = W | ----------------------| | B0..first cousins.” Though I agree with Ann on this one. describing this situation..C1 | | B2... Probably that’s why Al might refer to Calvin as “my brother-in-law”. and Calvin is Betty’s brother-in-law (definition 2). Please refer to this family tree for the following discussion. Terms Involving “Cousin” Children of the same two parents are siblings...  Betty is Calvin’s sister-in-law (definition 1).second cousins.

Their respective parents. | etc.. B2 and C2 are therefore second cousins: they are the second generation below the level of siblings. they are not used very often in ordinary conversation about one’s own family. Though the terms exist. Because their parents (B0 and C0) were siblings. archived here. (First cousins are sometimes called cousins german.. of which they share one pair (H and W). and cross. they are half siblings.royalty on 24 Jun 2000. who had both parents (H and W) in common. B1 and C1. Types of First Cousins First cousins can be classified two ways: patrilateral or matrilateral.talk. A table and some examples should make the terms clear: Zebulon = Yetta | William = Virginia | . and so on. Someone is your patrilateral cousin if you are first cousins through your father (and your father’s brother or sister). and all the cousinly relations below them would be preceded with the word “half”. according to William Addams Reitwiesner’s article “First Cousin Second Cousin” in alt... First Cousins.. While ortho-cousins are children of two brothers or two sisters. Note that these terms depend on the sexes of the parents. Another way to look at it is that B1 and C1 each have two pairs of grandparents..) Next consider B2 and C2. H and W are the common ancestors (husband and wife). they are the first generation below siblings.| | B3. B0 and C0 are their children. If B0 and C0 had only one parent in common. someone is yourmatrilateral cousin if you are first cousins through your mother (and your mother’s brother or sister). are first cousins.. B2 and C2 are their great-grandchildren. or simply “cousins”.fourth cousins.. B1 and C1 are their grandchildren. and So On B1 and C1 are called first cousins.third cousins. not of the cousins..C4 | etc.. These cousinly relations all assume that the generations trace back to (full) siblings (B0 and C0 in the diagram).or orthocousins. Second Cousins. crosscousins are children of a sister and brother..C3 | | B4. Each number in front of the word “cousin” corresponds to going another generation downboth sides of the family tree.

Example 2: A friend asked me to help him figure out what relationship he was to his mother’s aunt’s great-grandson. (If a relationship is just stated as “cousin”. Jack is also James’s matrilateral ortho-cousin. Each “remove” corresponds to going another generation down one side of the family tree. Continuing.) You are then B2. My friend B2 and his relative C3 are second cousins once removed. the child of your mother. through his brother Ed. Jack is also Jill’s patrilateral ortho-cousin because the relationship goes from Jill. Therefore B1 and C2 are called first cousins once removed. who is B1‘s first cousin.. to Jack. through her father Abe. (This section was adapted from “Cousin Marriage” in the 1967 Encyclopædia Britannica. Example 1: What relation to you is Joe. the most common example of a relationship designated removed. Joe is twice removed. . The word “removed” is used only when the relationship involves going down the family tree. the first cousins B1 and C1 must be your mother and her cousin. B2 and C4 are second cousins twice removed. But Jack is John’s matrilateral cross-cousin because the relationship is through John’s mother and then through her brother. For instance. Therefore the aunt’s great-grandson is at C3. so B1 and C3 are first cousins twice removed. three generations below her. or two generations below C2. and her aunt at C0.------------------------------| Abe = Beth | Jill | Cassie = Doug | John | ----------| | Georgina = Hank | James Ed = Felicia | Jack Jack’s first cousins can be categorized as follows:  Jill is Jack’s patrilateral ortho-cousin (related through Jack’s father Ed and Ed’s brother Abe). What relation are they? C2 is the child of C1.  James is Jack’s matrilateral ortho-cousin (related through Jack’s mother Felicia and Felicia’s sister Georgina). Your mother’s cousin is C1. his mother at B1. you’d place my friend at B2. not fourth cousins twice removed. and C1 and B1 are first cousins. usually that means “first cousin”. You (B2) are second cousin to C2. your mother’s cousin’s great-grandson? Answer: In the chart above. On the above chart. to later generations.  John is Jack’s patrilateral cross-cousin (related through Jack’s father Ed and Ed’s sister Cassie).) “Removed” Cousins Now consider B1 and C2. and her great-grandson Joe would be C4. Thus your mother’s [first] cousin’s greatgrandson is your second cousin twice removed—and of course you are also his second cousin twice removed. The “once removed” means that one of the two relatives is one generation removed from being a first cousin with the other. C3 is the grandchild of C1.

Sally is the mother of John and Amelia and stepmother of Amanda. and had a daughter named Amelia. Harry met Sally. the idea is that in the phrase “Nth cousins R times removed”. you go up R generations in the longer branch to get to “Nth cousins”. John. I’ll use the diagram below to illustrate these relationships. The key distinction is that half siblings have one parent in common but not both. then go N+R generations down the long branch. There are two ways you could be my stepsister: . they married.A Little Cousinly Algebra For those among you who like algorithms. cross over to a sibling. or simply “my stepfather’s ex”. Mark and Sally had a son named John. Another way to look at it is that you go N generations up the short branch of the tree.stepchildren). Sometimes they are used interchangeably.) (1968) | | | Amelia (1970. (If he was hoping for Christmas presents. Mark = (1) Sally (2) = (2) Harry (1) = Sue (1958) | | | John (1960.) Step Relations When a parent remarries. stepsiblings have no parents in common. Harry is the father of Amanda and Amelia and stepfather of John. might refer to Sue as “my stepfather’s ex-wife”. The children from a previous marriage are stepsons and stepdaughters (generically. Terms Involving “Half” and “Step” These terms apply when parents remarry.) (1957) | | | Amanda (1961. John is Harry’s stepson and Amanda is Sally’s stepdaughter. and Harry and Sue had a daughter named Amanda. then you go up N generations in both branches to get to siblings. but they have distinct and well-defined meanings. the new spouse is the stepfather or stepmother of any children from the previous marriage. Mark and Sue died (or the marriages ended in divorce). he might call her “Mom”!) You are my stepbrother or stepsister if we have no parents in common but our parents have married each other. who is Harry’s stepson. For instance. you are no relation to your stepparent’s previous spouse. By the way.

but John’s mother Sally is now married to Amanda’s father Harry. Amelia and Amanda are half sisters through their common father Harry. John is Amanda’s stepbrother and Amanda is John’s stepsister. that daughter is again my stepsister. If she and my stepfather have a daughter. if a person dies without leaving a will. Amelia is not stepsister but half sister to both John and Amanda. Half siblings have one parent in common.  If my mother marries a second time. For instance. stepsiblings have no parents in common. you will be either mystepsibling or my half sibling. that daughter is my half sister because we have the same mother but different fathers. where the two people have a common ancestor but neither one is an ancestor of the other. 1992]). or Degree of Kinship Degrees of consanguinity are used to compare the closeness of relationships in a legal context. where one person is an ancestor of the other. Similarly. that daughter is my stepsister because one of her parents is married to one of my parents. Also. Do you see the difference? If you are the child of my stepparent. her new husband is my stepfather. Amelia is John’s half sister and John is Amelia’s half brother. because she shares one parent with each. incest taboos prevent people marrying who are too closely related.  If my father marries a second time. and his new wife already has a daughter. “step” means you are the child of my stepparent and someone else (not my parent). orcollateral. a grandfather and grandson in the second degree. In the diagram. and so on. Consanguinity can be lineal. “Half” means you are the child of my parent and my stepparent. In the diagram. if my parents divorce or my father dies and my mother remarries. Isn’t English a strange language? Consanguinity. They have no parents in common. and her new husband (my new stepfather) Half Relations You are my half brother or half sister if we have one parent in common but not both. “Half brother” and “half sister” are each written as two words (source: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [Third Edition. For instance. without hyphens. “stepbrother” and “stepsister” are always written as single words. The same is true if my father remarries and has a daughter with his new wife: that daughter is my half sister. By the way. . A similar rule gives the two ways for you to be my stepbrother. through their common mother Sally. his estate will be divided according to a legally prescribed order. Computing lineal consanguinity is easy: how many generations of descent are there? Thus a father and son are related in the first degree.already has a daughter from a previous marriage.

) .talk. to H and W. (The above draws somewhat on François Velde’s Usenet article “Degrees” in alt.H = W | ------------| B0(M) | B1 | B2 | etc. B1 and C1 (first cousins) are related in the fourth degree (up from B1 to B0. exactly the same as first cousins (such as B1 and C1). It simply counts the length of the longer branch. Recent editions of the Britannica go into computation of consanguinity on the basis of shared DNA. On this system uncle and niece (such as B0 and C1) are related in the second degree. B0 and C1 (uncle and niece) are related in the third degree. | C0 | C1(F) | C2 | etc Collateral consanguinity is trickier. and in fact there are two main systems:  The Roman method or civil law counts up from one person to the common ancestor.  The Germanic method was used by Catholic canon law until 1983 and also historically by English and American law. then down to C0 and C1: four transitions in total). and the 1911 Britannica article Consanguinity.royalty [28 Oct 2003. On that basis great-grandparent and great-grandchild are related in the same degree as first cousins. On this system. archived here]. then down to the other person. because statistically each relationship involves 1/8 shared DNA.

“Wouldn’t it be rather sweet”. Divorce: This is the trickiest area. especially in everyday speech. Professional genealogists do it with diagrams and symbols. Death: For instance. that little girl is your niece. “to hear one grown man refer to another as ‘the father of my children’?” Well. Remarriage: Here. you are her Aunt Helen and she is your niece. You wouldn’t refer to her as your adoptive niece. is that divorced spouses can no longer refer to each other as “husband” and “wife” but must use “ex-husband” and “ex-wife” (informally.Life Changes. just “ex”). Whether your sister adopts a little girl or gives birth to one. If you and your husband divorce. Depending on the connection you feel with the people in question. the birth mother. you can always use a few extra words. of course. are his sister’s children still your nieces and nephews? Almost everyone would agree that they are. Particularly if you are on good terms with them. logically enough. if your husband dies. whatever your relationship with your ex-husband. Atheneum. Miss Manners asks. implying she’s not your “real” niece. Whether or not little Jennifer knows she was adopted. Of course common sense comes into it too. and are usually referred to asmother and father.and sister-in-law. but if you and the latter are on good terms there’s nothing wrong with speaking of each other as brother. . Theiradoptive parents are most likely the only ones they know. someone who’s adopted is every bit as much a relative as someone who was born into the family. no matter how amicable the divorce. They’re not going to stop calling you “Aunt Helen”. obviously his mother is still their grandmother. there’s no reason you can’t continue to call his children your nieces and nephews or why they shouldn’t go on calling you Aunt Helen. but they came into use when society was a lot less mobile than it is today. as with divorce. The woman who actually gave birth to the child is called. Relationship Changes The terms given above have a long tradition behind them. you could describe them as “my nieces and nephews” or “my first husband’s nieces and nephews”. My ex-husband’s stepbrother” is much more precise and accurate than “my brother-in-law”. 1982. maybe. Judith Martin (in Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. but how do various life events change the terms the rest of us use for relationships? Adoption: The rule here is simple: Unless you’re a member of a European ruling house. If you need to make the relationship clear. there’s no hard and fast rule. pages 565–6) favors some creative ambiguity. some would say no. but “my wife’s first husband” is a lot more clear. presumably. but is she still your mother-in-law? Some people would say yes. The one exception. What about parents? Most adoptions occur when the children are very young.