#3: Who’s Your 2nd Cousin?

3.1  Your 1st cousin can be referred to in many ways: your father’s nephew…your uncle’s son…your father’s brother’s son…your grandfather’s son’s son…your grandfather’s grandsonetc. This is convenient for  those who think saying “2nd cousin” is too complicated…and who’d rather say grandfather’s brother’s grandson…which is certainly more descriptive, altho I wouldn’t call it less complicated. The trouble is, saying something like “grandfather’s grandson” is ambiguous…yes, it’s your 1st cousin…but it’s also your sibling…for that matter, it’s also YOU!

3.2  Thus the definition of “1st cousin” you’ll find so frequently on the internet and elsewhere…that of having a grandparent in common doesn’t tell the whole story. To eliminate your siblings from being your 1st cousins, you must add but not a common parent. The same thing happens when “2nd cousin” is defined as having a great grandparent in common…you must add but not a common grandparent. This is a bit cumbersome, and more importantly, while this definition is true, what it means precisely may not be immediately obvious. For example, do you automatically jump from having the same great grand parent but different grandparents to having fathers who are 1st cousins? Maybe you do, and props to you, my friend…but there is a better way.

chart 5 new

3.3  Just as your 1st cousin is the son your father’s brother, your 2nd cousin is the son of your father’s 1st cousin. In Chart 5, each generation is a different color…yours is green, and the green 1C is your 1st cousin…your father’s generation is yellow, and the yellow 1C is his 1st cousin, and so forth. The basic family unit of parent and offspring…the building block of the family tree…repeats all up, down and across. In Chart 5, your father has 2 sons, you and your B for brother. Your father’s brother also has 2 sons…your father and his brother are the sons of your grandfather, who also has a brother, who has 2 sons, each of which has 2 sons…etc.

3.4  The thing to understand is that cousins…1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc…are of your  generation…not your father’s generation, not your grandfather’s generation, and not your son’s generation. Each of those…your father, grandfather, and son…have their own cousins, their own generation. The relationship of those cousins to you is called “cousins removed”…making it sound like they’re your cousins, but they’re not. It’s a quirk of the English language…after all, you don’t think of your uncle as some sort of brother to you, even tho he’s plainly your father’s brother. But if in English we called an uncle a brother once removedthen you very well might think of your uncle as a kind of brother.

3.5  Language drives perception. A good example is what the French call French fries: pommes frites…literally “fried apples.” That’s because a potato is a pomme de terre or “earth apple.” No one speaking French thinks of French fries as apples…this misnomer is ingrained in the language thru sheer repeated use.  And I daresay that genealogists don’t think of a “1st cousin once removed” as a cousin of your generation, but automatically of your father’s generation, similar to his brother, your uncle, only one step over horizontally, as in Chart 5. But if you’re just learning French, French fries sure sound like fried apples…and if you’re not conversant with kinship terminology, removed cousins sure sound like they’re just cousins, your cousins…which of course they’re not.

3.6  So the key to kinship is generations…equal steps down from the closest common ancestor. Chronological age generally coincides with generations, but not always. If for example your grandparents have a son after your father has you, you will have an uncle younger than you…and he will have a nephew older than he. It’s rare but it happens. Family trees are very flexible in that regard…over a long period of time, there may be a generational drift, so that 1st cousins removed, of 2 adjacent generations, may in fact be the same age. This happened with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor…they are often called 5th cousins, but Franklin was actually 5th cousin to Eleanor’s father Elliott and his brother, her uncle, Teddy Roosevelt. Thus Franklin and Eleanor were 5th cousins once removed, despite being just 2 years different in ages.

3.7  In everyday parlance of course, relatives of the same age are sometimes grouped together…so that you might call your uncle your cousin or vice versa. Individual families do it their own way. Altho I haven’t seen it yet in my family, some people researching their tree discover that what they always though of as a “cousin” is really an uncle. And going back many generations, one of the prime mistakes people make is putting ancestors, especially those who share the same name, in the wrong generation…so it’s important to be careful and watch for that.

3.8  Looking again at Chart 5, just as your 1st cousins come from your father’s siblings…and your 2nd cousins come from your father’s 1st cousins…your 3rd cousins come from your father’s 2nd cousins…this basic pattern spreads out, across, up and down your family tree. One thing that’s interesting, that you don’t see on Chart 5, is the number of sets of cousins you have. Assuming no parent is an only child, you have 2 sets of 1st cousins…those from your father’s siblings, and those from your mother’s siblings…and these 2 sets are (generally speaking!) unrelated to each other. But your father also has 2 sets of 1st cousins…from these you get 2 sets of 2nd cousins, likewise on your mother’s side, for a total of 4 sets of 2nd cousins. And 8 sets of 3rd cousins…16 sets of 4th cousins…32 sets of 5th cousins, etc…and that’s Your Generation!

3.9  You might notice how this all ties together…2 sets of 1st cousins corresponds to 2 parents, each of whom has siblings, and these siblings come from 2 pairs of grandparents…just as 4 sets of 2nd cousins corresponds to 4 pairs of great grandparents… 8 sets of 3rd cousins corresponds to 8 pairs of great great grandparents, etc. This is how your family tree spreads out… siblings of those in your direct line giving rise to a flood of collateral relatives, across and down.

3.10  To summarize: If you and Zeke are 1st cousins, you have parents who are siblings. If you are 2nd cousins, you have parents who are 1st cousins…and Zeke has a grandparent who is a sibling to one of your grandparents. If you are 3rd cousins, you have parents who are 2nd cousins, grandparents who are 1st cousins, and great grandparents who are siblings.

3.11  Going back the other way, as 3rd cousins, you and Zeke are the great grandchildren of siblings, the grandchildren of 1st cousins, and the children of 2nd cousins. If you’re 2nd cousins, you’re the grandchildren of siblings and the children of 1st cousins. If 1st cousins, you’re the children of siblings. Patterns building upon patterns…


3.12  I’ll finish up today with 2 practical examples from TV. The relationships I’ve diagramed here from The Beverly Hillbillies are referenced many times on the show. Jed Clampett and Pearl Bodine are called “cousins” several times and I am assuming that means 1st cousins. Some people swear that they were once referred to as siblings…making her Pearl Clampett Bodine…but no specific episode is ever cited. And with DVD box sets today, proof one way or the other is completely possible, albeit time-consuming! But assuming Jed and Pearl are 1st cousins, that makes Elly May  and Jethro 2nd cousins…they are called “cousins” for short, and that’s fine.


3.13  Next, this The Sopranos chart I didn’t make myself…I found it on the web…altho I did tweak it a little and add the pictures. Now Carmella always called Chris her “cousin.” This is common practice, altho as you can see, it was Chris’ father “Cousin Dickie” who was Carmella’s 1st cousin, making Chris her 1st cousin once removed. Thus Chris is 2nd cousin to Carmella’s daughter Meadow, altho on the show, again, he and Meadow are always simply “cousins.”

3.14  But I’d like to leave you with a little puzzle to ponder. Carmella’s husband Tony, leader of the pack, always referred to Chris as his “nephew.” They’re not a blood relatives, obviously…but Tony’s wife’s nephew would be his nephew by marriage…except of course that Chris isn’t really Carmella’s nephew, since he is the son of her 1st cousin, not of her brother. Still, from a practical standpoint, according to everyday usage Tony isn’t “wrong.” But here’s the puzzle: could it all be genealogically true? Is it possible for a man’s blood nephew to also be his wife’s blood 1st cousin, and can you do it without anybody marrying someone they’re related to? Answer next week…ciao. 


Copyright © 2011 Mark John, All Rights Reserved


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