Ask Harley


What does it mean when cousins are described using numbers or as being "removed"? For example, who is my sixth cousin once removed?

The system is simple once you figure out how it works.

Say that a woman and a man (call them Ma and Pa) get married and have two children named Son-1 and Daughter-1. We say that these children are siblings; that is, brother and sister.

Now say that Son-1 and Daughter-1 each have one child. Son-1 has Son-2, and Daughter-1 has Daughter-2. Son-2 and Daughter-2, the grandchildren of Ma and Pa, are cousins, or, more accurately, first cousins.

In the fullness of time, Son-2 has a child named Son-3. Daughter-2 has a child named Daughter-3. We say that Son-3 and Daughter-3, the great-grandchildren of Ma and Pa, are second cousins.

Can you see where this is going? The children of siblings are first cousins; the children of first cousins are second cousins; the children of second cousins are third cousins; and so on.

So if someone has the same parents as you, he is your sibling. If he has the same grandparents as you, he is your first cousin. If he has the same great-grandparents as you, he is your second cousin. And if he has the same great-great-grandparents as you, he is your third cousin.

Now, what about all the "removed" stuff? Simple. It just indicates that someone is a descendent of a cousin.

For example, the daughter of your first cousin is your first cousin once removed. The granddaughter of your first cousin is your first cousin twice removed. And the great-granddaughter of your first cousin is your first cousin three times removed.

So who is your sixth cousin once removed? The son or daughter of someone with whom you share great-great-great-great-great grandparents.

(Historical note: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is the sixth cousin once removed of Elvis Presley.)