Holy cow, I wrote a book!
Like every language, English has its own collection of words
to express family relationships.
There are the easy ones like mother, father, brother, and sister.
Also comparatively easy are cousin, aunt, uncle, niece and nephew.
But most people don't know about this "removal" part,
beyond the fact that your "first cousin twice removed"
is somebody you probably met once at a wedding ten years ago.
It's really not that complicated.
Some people think removal has to do with estrangement,
but actually it has to do with generations.
The children of your Nth cousin are your Nth cousins once removed.
Their grandchildren are your Nth cousins twice removed.
In general, to find your Nth cousin K times removed,
go to your Nth cousin and then follow their children K times.
You can also look at it from the point of view of the younger relative:
Your Nth cousin K times removed
is the Nth cousin of your
Kth direct ancestor,
where K = 1 is your parent,
K = 2 is your grandparent, etc.
For example, your father's second cousin is your second cousin
a nice chart at
that depicts many of these more complicated relationship terms.
In practice, these relationship terms are considered unnecessarily formal.
In casual conversation,
two such relatives who are comparable in ages are called
If one is significantly older than the other, then the older
relative is called a distant aunt/uncle of the younger one.
In many cultures, the terms for aunt and uncle can be
applied more generally to any close friend of your parents.
When I mentioned to my mother that
the children of one of my friends call me Uncle Raymond,
she asked me, "Which uncle?"
This question puzzled me initially,
but then I realized that in my parents' native language,
as with most other Chinese dialects,
several types of family relationships
which in English all get lumped together
The term to use depends on whether the uncle is paternal or maternal,
whether the uncle is older than or younger than your parent,
and whether the uncle is by blood or by marriage.
For example, you can use the word for
husband of father's older sister
or, if you wanted to be more respectful or if you need to resolve
ambiguity, you can say the word that means
husband of father's older sister number two.
One of the reasons for so many fine distinctions for family relationships
is that it is considered disrespectful
to address someone older than you by name.
(Compare United States culture,
where it is considered
disrespectful to address one's parents by name.)
Consequently, resolving ambiguity cannot be accomplished as it is
in Western cultures by appending the relative's name
(Aunt Carol or Uncle Bob);
it must be done by using a more specific title.
But since my friend's children speak English,
they can just address me as Uncle and not
have to worry about which kind of uncle I am.
(To my Chinese-speaking nieces, however, I am