What is my mom’s cousin to me? Unpacking genealogical relationships

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Second, removed, or even more distant? Here’s the answer to the question, ‘What is my mom’s cousin to me?’

The question of cousinship can be a burning issue at family reunions. “Um, how are we related again?” And people doing genealogical research often ask questions at JustAnswer such as “What is my mom’s cousin to me?”

Many people can never quite wrap their brains around the concept of numbered and removed cousins. But it’s not as complicated as it sounds, and there are a couple of tricks for figuring it out either in your head or on paper.

Even more confusing, you might still run across the phrase “cousin german” in older genealogies. That one is simple: It’s an outdated term for a first cousin, that is, the child of one of your parent’s siblings.

The term is of Middle English origin and derives not from the word German, but from the Latin word “germanus,” meaning “brother.” Related words still used today include “germane,” meaning “connected” or “relevant.”

Another older term for first cousin you might also see in genealogies is “full cousin.”

And then there are “double cousins:” If a pair of brothers marries a pair of sisters, their children are not only first cousins, they’re double first cousins. They share not only one set of grandparents, but two.

To help both genealogy researchers and confused family members, here’s how cousinships are calculated. 

What is my mom’s cousin to me? Your first cousin, once removed.

A simple way to picture cousin relationships is to figure out which ancestor is shared.

As Expert Shirley on JustAnswer explains:

  • First cousins share a set of grandparents.
  • Second cousins share a set of great-grandparents.
  • Third cousins share a set of great-great-grandparents.

As the generations between the two cousins increases, so does the degree of cousinhood.

Removed is used when the number of generations is unequal. If you count three generations to a common ancestor but your cousin counts four generations to that same ancestor, your cousinship is expressed first in terms of the closest relationship (second cousins), with an amendment showing the difference of one generation (once removed).

Your mother and her cousin share a set of grandparents, making them first cousins. Their grandparents, however, are your great-grandparents.

First calculate the closest relationship you have to your mom’s cousin: She and your mom are first cousins. But you’re not in the same generation as your mom’s cousin, so calculate how many generations there are between you and your mom’s cousin: One.

Therefore, your mom’s cousin is your first cousin, once removed.

The same will also apply to your first cousin’s children. You and your cousin are first cousins, but your cousin’s children are one generation removed from the two of you. Again: First cousins, once removed.

In other words, first, second, and third cousins and so on all share ancestors of the same generation. Removed only comes into play when there are different numbers of generations to a shared ancestor.

Here’s another way to look at it, courtesy of A. Schuyler, another genealogist on JustAnswer.

You already know what first cousins are: People whose parents are siblings. Your second cousins are people who grandparents are siblings. A. Schuyler offers this chart to help explain:

JOHN ­–––– siblings­ –––– SARA
|                                              |
CHARLES – first cousins – SUSAN
|                                              |
MARY – second cousins – ROBERT
|                                               |
JASON – third cousins – DYLAN

Then, you can add a different generation from, say, Jason, if Jason has a child. It looks like this: 

JASON – third cousins – DYLAN

Jason and Dylan are third cousins, but because Jason’s daughter, Emily, is one generation away from the two of them, Emily is Dylan’s third cousin once removed. 

But who wants to say ‘My third cousin once removed, Emily’?

All of this raises more questions, such as what to actually call someone when speaking to them, or referring to them. A. Schuyler points out, “There is a difference between how we handle our family ties versus genealogy.”

For instance, she says, “I might call my mother’s first cousin Susan ‘Aunt Susan’ instead of ‘Susan’ in person, or in referring to her to others who know the family. But Susan is actually my first cousin once removed in genealogical terms.”

You can understand why many people at a family reunion might simply introduce someone as a “distant cousin.” The actual details create a complicated mouthful in conversation! At the same time, researching one’s distant cousins can be absorbing, and might even reveal some surprising relationships.

Genealogical researchers have had a lot of fun with this over the years. They’ve discovered some truly entertaining cousinships, including:

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and singer/actress Madonna – 10th cousins
  • Secretary of State Clinton and actress Angelina Jolie – 9th cousins, twice removed
  • Prince Charles and actor Ralph Fiennes – 8th cousins
  • Actor/directors and longtime friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck – 10th cousins once removed
  • Affleck and President Barack Obama – 11th cousins
  • President Obama and Vice President Dick Cheney – 8th cousins
  • President Obama and President George W. Bush – 10th cousins once removed
  • Actor/comedian Denis Leary and comedian Conan O’Brien – third cousins
  • President Bush and President Abraham Lincoln – 7th cousins
  • President Bush and Princess Diana – 11th cousins, twice removed
  • President Bush and actress Marilyn Monroe – 9th cousins, three times removed

So the next time someone asks, “What is my mom’s cousin to me?,” you’ll be able to answer authoritatively. And if you’re researching your family tree, you may even find a famous distant cousin of your own. 

Have you discovered any famous distant cousins of your own? Please share with us in the comments below.



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