Disambiguating Cousins

We're getting ready to go to Chicago this week for my brother's wedding (finally!). This will be a big family get together with my cousins and aunts/uncles from both sides of our family coming with spouses and kids in many cases. Even though the family isn't huge, I don't recall ever having had both sides together before, and I've certainly never met many of my cousins' spouses/kids.

So, one of the longstanding questions I needed to work out was the proper terms for each relation so I can describe it to the kids. I didn't grow up around my cousins or extended family, so I never really had to learn this. In particular, I never understood the ideas of removed and degrees (e.g. first/second/nth cousin).

For the English terms, I turned to the cousins article in Wikipedia, naturally. Briefly:

  • Degrees indicates the minimum number of generations separating two cousins from a common ancestor. My uncles/aunts' kids are my first cousins since we share common grandparents (one generation - parents - separate us from our common ancestor). My kids and my first cousins' kids are second cousins because they share common great-grandparents.
  • Removed indicates the number of generations separating the cousins.

Therefore, my cousins and my sons are first cousins, once removed. First because the minimum number of generations separating them from their common ancestor is one (my cousins to my grandparents), and once removed because there is one generation separating my cousins from my kids. Whew.

The Chinese terms seem hopelessly complex, so I asked my mom for a table. Although there does appear to be a grammar of sorts for these terms, even among Chinese it's confusing. In Chinese the birth order and side of family of the various parties changes the terms, so the terms for my father's side are completely different from those on my mom's side and the order of each generation's birth changes the words (fortunately, at some point, the strict numbering appears less important than the older/younger bit. I remember struggling with some of these growing up because Chinese refer to family relations using these terms, and it's important to get them right, lest you insult someone. However, even my mom suggests that we stop the practice among the cousins because it's just too hard (and we don't see each other often and the kids don't really speak Chinese, etc.) I'll spare everyone the gory details here, but let me know if you're interested. I may try to build tree/generating function for these terms if I get bored (maybe this would be a good Wikipedia article to write...)

Anyway, I feel somewhat relieved to finally understand this stuff a bit and be able to explain it better. The boys were dying to know. (Well, not really.)

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