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Degrees of “Cousin-ness”

Posted by Amy Johnson Crow on March 29, 2014 in Research

As we research our family history  we often make connections with distant cousins, either through our online trees or DNA testing, who we hadn’t met before. But what is the proper term for said distant relatives? It can be confusing trying to figure it out. If your closest relative is a great grandparent, but there is one generation gap, are you third cousin? Are they removed? Let’s take a look at what those cousin terms mean, and how you can figure them out in your family tree.

Degrees of “Cousin-ness”

Terms like “first cousin” and “second cousin” refer to what I call the degrees of “cousin-ness.” It’s an indication of how close the common ancestor is to them. The further back the first common ancestor is, the larger the number.

First cousins are as close as you can be and still be cousins. It means that the closest ancestor that two people have in common is a grandparent. (If they were any more closely related, they would be siblings.) “Second cousins” means that the closest common ancestor is a great-grandparent. Third cousins, then, have a great-great-grandparent as their most recent common ancestor.

Removed Cousins

“Removed” refers to how many generations “different” two people are. Their most common ancestor might be the great-grandfather of one and the great-great-grandfather of the other. Since they’re not equally distant from the common ancestor, “removed” is a way to show how far apart they are.

An Example

In the example below, John and Mary had two sons: Adam and Abe. Adam had a daughter named Barbara; Barbara had a son Charles; and Charles had a daughter Denise. Abe had a son named Bob; Bob had a daughter Cathy; and Cathy had a son David. Let’s see how these people are related.

Barbara and Bob are first cousins. Their closest common ancestors are their grandparents (John and Mary). Barbara and Bob have the same distance from their closest common ancestors; no “removed” is necessary.

Cousin Tree

Charles and Cathy are second cousins. Their closest common ancestors are their great-grandparents (John and Mary). They, too, are the same distance away from their closest common ancestors; no “removed” is necessary.

Similarly, Denise and David are third cousins. Their closest common ancestors are their great-great-grandparents. They are the same distance apart, so we don’t need a “removed.”

Barbara and Cathy: Their closest ancestors (John and Mary) are Barbara’s grandparents, but Cathy’s great-grandparents. The one closest determines the “degree.” In this case, Barbara is closest. She’s a grandchild, so that makes the degree “first cousin.” Cathy is one generation different (she’s a great-grandchild), so we need to “remove” her once. Barbara and Cathy are first cousins, once removed.

Barbara and David are first cousins, twice removed. Barbara is still the closest, at grandchild, so it’s still a first cousin. But David is two generations different, so he needs to be “removed” twice. Put it together and you have first cousins, twice removed.

What about Charles and David? The closest relationship to the common ancestors is Charles, as a great-grandchild. That makes the “degree” second cousins. But Charles and David are one generation different, so they need to be “removed” once. Their relationship is second cousins, once removed.

Working It Out With Your Cousins

If you want to calculate relationships between two people in your family tree, you can sketch out their descent from the common ancestors (like I did with John and Mary) and see where they are.

If you’re more mathematically inclined, there is a formula you can use. Take the relationship of the closest ancestor and add 1 to the number of “greats” for the “degrees.” For example, if the closest ancestor is a great-grandparent, the degree is second cousins. Add the number of “removed” as necessary.

Many genealogy software programs, such as Family Tree Maker, allow you to choose two people in a family tree and calculate their relationship. Seeing what these terms mean and how you can calculate the relationship yourself can help you understand those relationships better.

 

About Amy Johnson Crow
Amy Johnson Crow is a Community Manager for Ancestry.com. She's a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and No Story Too Small.

21 comments

Comments
1 Joe AscenzoMarch 29, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Thanks, the whole ‘Removed’ thing confuses me. I usually say 2nd cousin or distant relative.

2 NanaShayMarch 29, 2014 at 12:31 pm

If it is further back than 3rd cousin, I always say “We share a common ancestor”

3 Beth Winter BaniaMarch 29, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Stupid me – I offered my help to you without reading your article. I am new to Twitter but not genealogy. I just finished my search – with great help from your company – and wrote a book about it. First I got lucky when I “broke through” my father’s adoption papers. The story gets richer from there. Yes, I found many 1/2 first cousins, 2 1/2 second cousins, one first cousin once removed – and a cousin who’s status still remains indecipherable to me. The first reason for my search was medical history. Then had a few family members die and causes of death were not documented with an autopsy. So, my apologies – and my thanks to your company for being a great place to find so much information and answers to my questions. (Ancestry.com got an acknowledgement in my book.) Beth Bania

4 ToniMarch 29, 2014 at 3:42 pm

We just call each other Cousin. Nobody cares how technical it is, we found each other and that’s what matters.

5 Joan BrownMarch 29, 2014 at 4:06 pm

The people that I know don’t bother with the removed deal. We are first, second, third cousins, etc.

6 JessicaMarch 29, 2014 at 7:22 pm

The degrees get far too technical for me. I understand who my second cousins etc are but I get confused with the “removed” part. Generally I just refer to them as my mother’s cousin or my cousin’s child etc.

7 PhyllisMarch 29, 2014 at 9:44 pm

Have an 8th cousin I wouldn’t trade for 100 first cousins!

8 JodiMarch 30, 2014 at 6:55 am

Best description of cousin-ness I’ve read. Bookmarked for future reference. TY!

9 AdrianaMarch 30, 2014 at 11:28 am

The “removed” part used to confuse me, so one day I sat down and Googled the term. I studied it for a little while and now I don’t even have to think about it. If you’re just referring to a cousin relative of yours, then “cousin” is fine, but I tend to think technical terminology in genealogy is best. If you wrote down details of your life and called someone your cousin or your second cousin, I would start to look at your grandparents and your great-grandparents for a common ancestor while I was working on the family tree. If you told me that you were a first cousin, once removed, I’d have a better idea of where to start.

10 JaniceMarch 30, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Thanks for posting this. I had the general idea but it is quite confusing at times! But I have another question: is your cousin’s spouse your cousin too? I’d like to think so .

11 Linda CaughronMarch 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm

I was just discussing this topic with a family member. We wanted to use the correct term BUT since we weren’t sure, we decided to say something like “they shared the same great- great-great grandparents”. Thanks for the education-I love learning the correct way to do something!
Linda

12 RM989March 30, 2014 at 9:41 pm

Understanding family relationships has become important to me over time. Some of my favorite ancestors were hiding in those “degrees of cousin-ness”.

13 RobinMarch 30, 2014 at 11:18 pm

Awesome! Thanks for explaining in such simple terms. I finally understand what the once removed means.

14 gloria laneMarch 31, 2014 at 12:13 am

It’s really quite simple to figure. But what difference after a second or third cousin removed.

15 Charles BurdenMarch 31, 2014 at 9:30 am

Great artical, I don’t really think in term’s as “removed”, if the common Ancestor remain’s the same your still cousin’s.

[...] Degrees of Cousin-ness by Amy Johnson Crow [...]

[...] Degrees of Cousin-ness by Amy Johnson Crow [...]

18 Mike DaigleMarch 31, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Great job Amy! I get asked this all the time. I am saving your article to show people when I get asked this. Mike

19 What You Might Have Missed: March 31st EMarch 31, 2014 at 2:48 pm

[...] Degrees of Cousin-ness by Amy Johnson Crow [...]

[...]   [...]

21 ToniApril 3, 2014 at 5:59 pm

One of my brick walls may be tumbling. I suspect my great great grandparents were uncle and niece. The Wisconsin web site says no marriage between anyone closer than 2nd cousins unless the bride is over 55. That must not have applied in 1862.

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