#138: Top-Down Cousins, Removed

138.1  Quiz from last week: did you catch the error in the First Cousin Once Removed section of this website?  I’ve underlined it in red, and quite a startling blooper it is, especially for somebody holding themselves out as an expert on kinship. Back in my college days, in a more academic setting, we’d call such a goof a “howler.” But before addressing it…


138.2   …a quick check of what I called last week half-a-mistake…in the green box. In the interest of clear and confident communication, I recommend replacing “could” with “is” wherever possible. And that’s sure the case here: The children of your second cousins are also called your second cousins once removed.

138.3  But what do we make of the assertion that your 1C 1R is also “properly called” your 2C 1R? Charitably, you might say this person simply wasn’t thinking. On the other hand, such a boner does call into question their understanding of the cousin removed relationship in the first place. The initial “eureka!” moment is when you understand that a cousin removed is, as I always say, somebody’s cousin, just not yours. And that somebody is in a different generation from you…the distance determining the number of times removed. But just who is this “somebody”?

138.4  Racing willy-nilly up and down the family tree with your newfound “knowledge,” it’s easy to make the kind of mistake we’re talking about here. But cousins removed are reckoned top-down, that is, starting with the older generation and moving down to the younger generation…if for no other reason than the older generation was here first!

chart 481

138.5  Looking at Chart 481, we’ll go back to a time when your father and his 1st cousin were childless. Say, your father has you…your father’s 1st cousin is now your first cousin once removed, and he is yours. Then your father’s 1st cousin has a child, your 2nd cousin…going up a generation from that 2nd cousin, can’t your father’s 1st cousin be called your “2nd cousin once removed”? Nope, for 2 reasons: first, he’s already your 1st cousin once removed…that was settled when the next generation down from your father & his 1st cousin entered the picture…and second, your father’s 2nd cousin is your 2nd cousin once removed.

138.6  And using that line of reasoning…that cousins removed can be reckoned from younger generation to older…that would make your uncle also your 1st cousin once removed, since he is one generation removed from your 1st cousin.  But gong back to how this all started, moving from one generation to the next, what if your 2nd cousin arrived before you did? Doesn’t matter, it’s all interchangeable, since your father’s 1st cousin’s 1st cousin is…ta-da!…your father.

138.7  The whole point of a system of kinship terms is to uniquely (while not always succinctly!) identify anyone and everyone you’re related to. True, your 1st cousin can be called “your uncle’s son,” “your father’s brother’s son,” “the father of your son’s 2nd cousin,” “the grandson of your grandfather who isn’t your sibling,” etc. But the basic words…either taken alone, such as father, son, brother, cousin, uncle…or compounded with great, grand, 1st, 2nd, once removed, twice removed…pin-point one and only one place on your tree. To do otherwise would, as they say, defeat the  purpose…nez pah?

138.8  Which brings us…almost as if I’d planned it that way!…to the last line in the above excerpt…” This [i.e. 1st cousins once removed] is one of the confusing areas where different relatives can have the same title…”  Ah, yes…tell-tale clues that the author here isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Like the world “title”…I would have said word, term, designation…I mean, would you really say: “I am a human being…that is my title”?  Also: “one of the confusing areas”…well, if you’re talking blood relatives, no…there are no other confusing areas…which is to say, ambiguous areas…after all, anything is confusing to someone who doesn’t understand it. Sure, “parent” and “sibling” don’t tell you the gender, but then they are collective nouns that aren’t meant to.

138.9  The only other ambiguous kinship term is “brother-in-law,” of which there are 2 kinds: the kind you have to be married to have, that is your wife’s brother…and the kind you can be single and still have, which would be your sister’s husband. And really, altho I say there are 2 kinds of brothers-in-law, there is still only one kind of brother-in-law relationship between 2 individuals, that being: one is the brother and the other the husband…of someone. Just as with 1C 1R…one is the cousin, the other the son… of someone. And indeed, uncle/nephew…one is the brother, the other the son…of someone. And there’s the difficulty: with uncle/nephew, each “end” of the relationship has a different term…not so with brother-in-law or cousin removed.

138.10  Except that it is so with cousin removed…the older generation is ascending, the younger generation is descending…other ways to say it include upwards/downwards, backwards/forwards, major/minor. And notice that these are instantly understood in a genealogical sense, since for the term cousin removed to be of any use, you have to expect the generation to be specified. Is this construction cumbersome? Yes, no denying it…but in a genealogical context, it’s standard English, and at some point really does become more concise….as when you say 1st cousin 7 times removed ascending instead of great great great great great grandfather’s 1st cousin…which itself can be contracted to 5G grandfather’s 1st cousin…where there’s a will, there’s a way.

138.11 Still, every kinship relation that involves individuals of different generations tells you which is the older, which the younger…that’s simply how we do it in English. Granted, Spanish does it in a much more logical and succinct way…1C 1R is either your 2nd uncle (tio segundo) or 2nd nephew (sobrino segundo)….but our language is what it is.

138.12  That having been said, we mustn’t get hung up on the idea of “there isn’t a word for it.” A single word, no…but there is a completely understandable phrase for it, a perfectly acceptable way to say it, that’s appropriate for all occasions: your 1st cousin once removed ascending is your parent’s 1st cousin. Done and done. In fact, in everyday conversation, that’s exactly how I would say it…my father’s 1st cousin. The longer technical term is fine in a genealogical context, or when talking to somebody whom I know is genealogically savy…but otherwise, just spell it out and you’re home free. My 1st cousin’s son…my grandmother’s 2nd cousin…etc. etc.  And heck, you can do that in any case…instead of my great grand uncle, just say my great grandfather’s brother. No tears…and it’s all good.

chart 482

138.13  One final thought…there is a good deal of distain dumped upon those who have the mathematical temerity to suggest a sibling could be thought of as a 0th or zeroth cousin. However, if you trace the way the numbers follow…0, 1, 2, 3…in Chart 482, you’ll see there’s sense to it after all. And not for nothing, that’s how computers count…the 1st in a series of things is #0…next week…onward the Quest!

wicked ballsy


“But I don’t like having to say ascending or descending with cousins removed!”  Well, that’s tough. You don’t have to like it…that’s why Esperanto was invented…or speak Klingon, I don’t care. But leave it off, and you’re only giving half the story, leading to imprecision and the kind of twisted up kinship relations we’ve been discussing. This is certainly not the only instance in the English language when going only “half way” results in puzzlement…take the 4 sayings above. I’ve mentioned #4 before…what the heck has a clam to be happy about? You find out what when you complete the phrase: Happy as a clam at high tide…the idea is that the sand it’s buried in is now underwater, making it difficult or impossible for some hungry someone to dig it up.

Likewise, with #1, what’s the Devil got to do with mentioning someone, and suddenly he pops in? Speak of the Devil and he’s sure to appear. I get the feeling this was originally used in more of a moralistic or even psychological sense…dwell on bad things and they’ll start to happen…but came to be used literally, as the one you talk about will become physically present because of your talking.

Sure, there’s no use crying over spilt milk…or any accident that can’t be undone…but in the continuation, we find out why specifically we’re talking about milk…because it’s wet enough already. Ha! And you say all the jays you’ve ever seen were loaded with gorgeous plumage? Naked as a jay-bird before it got its feathersand if you’ve ever seen a newly hatched jay, it is indeed completely featherless. So there you go… 


Copyright © 2013 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved


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