What kind of uncle am I?


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 once removed. There's a nice chart at genealogy.com 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 distant cousins. 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, there are several types of family relationships which in English all get lumped together as uncle. 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 大姑丈.)

Comments (38)
  1. Anonymous says:

    You have the same kind of distinctions in Tamil as well.  It took me a while to get used to it.

  2. CmraLvr2 says:

    Very interesting.  Makes me want to go research the topic further… (family naming in different cultures).

    So, would a geneology company be a cousin removal service?

  3. Anonymous says:

    For the coding-minded among us, it might help to put the cousins and removal thing in terms of math:

    • For two related people, A and B, find the closest common ancestor C.
    • Determine the number of ancestors between A and C; call that a.  (Defined such that the number of ancestors between a father and son is zero.  That is, it’s non-inclusive of the endpoints.)

    • Determine the number of ancestors between B and C; call that b.

    • If min(a,b) <= 0, abort.  English has another term for this relationship, and it’s non-reflexive and sex-dependent.

    • If a == b, A and B are (min(a,b)) cousins.

    • Otherwise, A and B are  (min(a,b)) cousins (abs(a-b)) removed.  

    This is complicated somewhat by the fact that many people believe – erroneously – that their parents’ cousins are their second cousins.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Only after the previous comment posted did I realize that the second-to-last step is needlessly complicated.  If a == b, A and B are (a) cousins.

  5. Anonymous says:

    If my cousins are just cousins, and my mother’s cousins are once removed from me, what is the relationship between myself and the children of my mother’s cousins?  That’s one generation "up," then "over," then a generation back "down."  Does that make them twice removed, or should I just stick with "distant?"  Or is there no formally-named relationship to that at all?

  6. If my cousins are just cousins, and my mother’s cousins are once removed from me, what is the relationship between myself and the children of my mother’s cousins?

    Second cousins.

  7. mvadu says:

    In almost all Indian languages we have very granular deified relationships.

    We have a different name for brothers of your mother and father, their wives, their sisters and their kids. Though the exact name is different across languages once you know the name of the relationship in one you can easily figure it in other language.

    And as with Chinese calling any one older than you by name is mostly considered disrespectful. And most languages solves that by using plural to refer to single person (kind of saying  “they will join us”, while actually meaning “he will join us”)

  8. Anonymous says:

    @mvadu – At one point English had the practice of using the second person plural pronoun (you) instead of the second person singular pronoun (thou) as a sign of deference.  This became so widespread that we dropped the singular completely from everyday usage.  The only common usage of it now is in books written in older english (like the Bible or Shakespeare), where the familiar singular pronoun was used in reference to God in the Bible, or as an insult in Shakespeare.  Oddly enough, because of that use in the Bible, many people have come to think of "thou" as a pronoun of veneration, giving it the opposite meaning of what it originally had.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I never considered addressing my parents by name as disrespectful.

    It did, however, feel akward for some reason.

    Perhaps it is moving from social faux-pas to just simple convention as time goes by.

    More interesting is whether you address a person as Mr/Mrs/Ms lastname, or by the first name, or even just by their last name with no honorific.

    Interestingly, it currently seems that last name with no honorific is reseverd for more intimate contacts than first name and even strangers can address you by your first name solely now.

    In fact, Mr lastname almost automatically denotes that you are in trouble of some sort.

  10. Anonymous says:

    中文确实复杂多了,搞不清楚我的孩子应该管我的姥姥叫太姥姥还是太奶奶。

  11. Anonymous says:

    Google Translate helpfully translated 大姑丈 into "Great 姑丈".

  12. tgrand says:

    I don’t know any Chinese, but I’m still curious as to why 大姑丈 means uncle.  Flickr has made it very clear that there’s no mistake here.  (Sorry for doubting you Raymond!)  Seems uncle is 大姑丈 and aunt is 大姑姑.

    But, Microsoft Translator translates 姑丈 as aunt, 姑 means mother-in-law in Japanese, and I kinda figured that since 姑 contained 女 it should be feminine.  Is its use here purely phonetic or something?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Ah Raymond, always blogging about your neices and

  14. Anonymous says:

    am I the only one confused by the fact that "first cousin twice removed" may refer to both to grand-grand-child of your uncle and a child of your great-great-uncle?

  15. "first cousin twice removed" may refer to both to grand-grand-child of your uncle and a child of your great-great-uncle

    The relationship is symmetric.  If I am the great-grandchild of your uncle, then you are the child of my great-granduncle.

    In "nth cousin m times removed", the "m" loses information via the symmetric tensor, but the "n" really is symmetric and no information is lost.

  16. Anonymous says:

    The graphic that explained it best to me is the one at wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CousinTree.svg

    @Brian that makes your example cousins your second cousins (you go up *two* generations from your parents to find common ancestors, but you are on the *same* generational level of the family tree, so you are not ‘removed’).

  17. Anonymous says:

    Fran Drescher (as Fran Fine): "…and believe me, she was removed for a reason!"

    @Xepol:

    I agree. Although I haven’t addressed my parents by name, I have referred to them in that way when talking to other people.

    Regarding addressing people as Mr <Surname>, one thing that’s bugged me has been when telephone callers used such a reference and I had to ask "Which one?" And in some cases (I think it happened with telemarketers), they refused to provide the first name! I suppose that in that case, they may have been confused or caught off guard, which was mildly satisfying, but still very annoying.

  18. Anonymous says:

    "Seems uncle is 大姑丈 and aunt is 大姑姑."

    I know absolutely no Chinese characters beyond the one for "middle", and yet I’m 90% certain I can figure out exactly what the answer is to your question just from the context of Raymond’s posting.

    Apply your 1337 debugging skills.

  19. Anonymous says:

    姑 in Chinese means sister of ones father (which is aunt)

    大 means first, or great, just to denote the first son/daughter of the family

    丈 is husband of someone.

    so, 姑 and 丈 combined means husband of ones father’s sister. add a 大 in front gives you the rank of the aunt in the family.

  20. Anonymous says:

    @tgrand

    Uncle is 姑丈 and Aunt is 姑姑. Raymond’s wife’s nieces(his wife’s brother’s children) would call him 姑丈. They would have add a "Great" to 姑丈(aka 大姑丈) if his wife is the oldest sibling in her family. 姑丈 would mean Aunt’s hushand, that’s why is started with a word with 女(woman). If his nieces are his wife’s sister’s children, then they have to call him 大姨丈.

    This is the reason I don’t like Chinese new year and Chinese gatherings: I always have a hard time to figure out how to address my elders on the spot, especially if the relationship is very complex.

    Chinese and Japanese words cannot be used interchangeably, even though they are the same word or derived from the same word. For example, 大丈夫 in Chinese means "great man" but 大丈夫 in Japanese means "no problem".

    This Chinese phrase would make no sense in Japanese: 男子汉,大丈夫有所为,有所不为. It means there are some things real men should do and there are some things real men should never do.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Danish distinguises between paternal and maternal uncles, if they’re blood relatives.

    If maternal, it’s "morbror", meaning "mother’s brother", if paternal, it’s "farbror" – You can probably guess what it means. If it’s by marriage, it’s just "onkel", which, as you’ve probably guessed, translates to "uncle".

    There are others like this, like we differentiate cousins based on gender, "kusine" being female and "fætter" being male.

    You should really study Danish, Raymond, as a complimentary language to Swedish – They’re not *too* different. :)

  22. Anonymous says:

    CatG, AnimeNewbie: Thank you for the kind explanations.  It seems so obvious now. :)

  23. Anonymous says:

    Gah. I get so confused… I’ve seen the picture and the code millions of times and it still doesn’t click.

    I’ve given up…

  24. Anonymous says:

    parkrrrr, thank you very much for putting it in this form! Now it finally makes sense.

  25. In South African Afrikaans culture, "oom" and "tannie" (uncle and auntie) are terms of respect towards an older person, not just a family thing. This has spilled over into the English speaking population too. A younger person meeting an older one, even a stranger, would typically address them as uncle or auntie rather than sir or madam. This extends to the third person where a parent might say to their child "Don’t bother the uncle/auntie" rather than "Don’t bother the gentleman/lady."

    Being a first-generation British immigrant I tend to prefer "sir" and "madam" and get mildly annoyed when I’m addressed as "oom" or "uncle". As I recall I was only about fifteen years old the first time some strange kid called me "oom".

  26. Anonymous says:

    The English form of cousin always seemed limiting in expression. The "removed" thing doesn’t tell direction (up or down the family tree), does it?

    Nearly all Sanskrit derived languages have distinct words for "maternal uncle", "maternal aunt", "paternal uncle" and "paternal aunt"

    The word "cousin" has been adapted to mean ONLY for the "person at same hierarchical level" … so a cousin can only be a "cousin sister" or "cousin brother" :) :)

    Anyone one level below is a nephew/niece, anyone above an uncle/aunt, no matter how far away that person is, in the family tree.

    Just to elaborate …

    My father’s brother’s son is my cousin.

    My father’s brother’s son’s son is my nephew

    @mvadu and @Josh

    The pronoun to address "You (respected form)" and "you (same aged person)" is present in all Sanskrit derived languages.

    e.g. Any German would know these as "Sie" and "du".

  27. Anonymous says:

    @AnimeNewbie

    "Chinese and Japanese words cannot be used interchangeably, even though they are the same word or derived from the same word. For example, 大丈夫 in Chinese means ‘great man’ but 大丈夫 in Japanese means ‘no problem’."

    If you’re half Chinese, half Japanese, you could say 大丈夫 大丈夫, meaning "Great, man, no problem!" ;)

  28. Anonymous says:

    “The English form of cousin always seemed limiting in expression.”

    This is true. Reading this discussion, all I can say about that fact is “Hooray!!!!! English wins again”.

    … Not having to figure out all of this irrelevant hierarchical crap? Priceless.

    [While you’re at it, could you simplify the language some more? Like get rid of this irrelevant gender-specific crap and have a single gender-neutral pronoun. Oh, and the irrelevant verb tenses too. Actually, verb conjugation in general is pointless. And noun plurals are redundant. And the definite vs indefinite article is also irrelevant most of the time. They all drive native Chinese speakers nuts. -Raymond]
  29. Anonymous says:

    This is pretty cool – do the more complicated relations end up looking like path expressions?

    Nearly all Sanskrit derived languages have distinct words for "maternal uncle", "maternal aunt", "paternal uncle" and "paternal aunt"

    I thought that Sanskrit was mostly a dead end and that most indian languages were dravidian – there’s a fair amount of info on wikipedia, but it conflicts in part with some of what I know regarding language evolution around india.

  30. Anonymous says:

    [While you’re at it, could you simplify the language some more? Like get rid of this irrelevant gender-specific crap and have a single gender-neutral pronoun. Oh, and the irrelevant verb tenses too. Actually, verb conjugation in general is pointless. And noun plurals are redundant. And the definite vs indefinite article is also irrelevant most of the time. They all drive native Chinese speakers nuts. -Raymond]

    I dunno – english is a mushy mongrel. It’s easy to be understood since almost anything goes, but there are a lot of habits (not rules) you have to learn in order to get really good at it. Also, you can usually tell someone’s native tongue (or narrow it down) by observing which mistakes they make.

  31. Anonymous says:

    me.Mother.Father.Brother.Daughter

    me.Father.Sister.Son.Son

    So these two persons would be calls cousins once removed in English? I learned to call them "primo segundo", literally "second cousin" in (Puerto Rican) Spanish.

    So what you call Nth removed is for me (N+1)th cousin, which then means something different to you? Confusing…

    And @Cooney, I think that can be said of any language by their native speakers.

  32. Anonymous says:

    While you’re at it, fix the whole grandmother/grandfather issue in English.

    Seriously talking about your third cousin twice removed isn’t nearly as common as wanting to specify whether you talk about your maternal or paternal grandparents. For once Swedish has the ideal solution that English should adopt:

    "Farfar" means father’s father ("far" is the word for father), "Farmor" father’s mother ("mor" is the word for mother), "Mormor" – mother’s mother and "Morfar" mother’s father. The nice thing is that (although not commonly used) these could in fact be stringed together for longer hierarchies: "Farmorfar" and so on.

    This bug needs to be fixed ASAP.

  33. Anonymous says:

    > "The pronoun to address "You (respected form)" and "you (same aged person)" is present in all Sanskrit derived languages."

    Don’t forget the third pronoun to refer to a younger person or one of a lower status. For example, in Hindi, one would refer to an elder or one of a higher status with the pronoun "aap", a person of the same age/status with "tum", and a person of lesser age/status with "tu" (though "tu" can also be used in informal situations to refer to one’s close friends, irrespective of age/status).

    > "I thought that Sanskrit was mostly a dead end and that most indian languages were dravidian"

    @Cooney: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskrit#Influence

    "Words originating in Sanskrit are estimated to constitute roughly fifty percent of the vocabulary of modern Indo-Aryan languages, and the literary forms of (Dravidian) Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada."

  34. Anonymous says:

    If it’s just plain Chinese, the list of "Family-title" in the link is sufficient.

    If your family happens to use certain other dialects, the list of family goes twice to 3-times longer… (I have some relatives that I can only speck how to address them, but never know the words to write them out…)

    Also note that because of one-child policy, for most families the hierarchy would be much much simpler.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Using Google Translate (or Microsoft Translate) is the wrong tactic for Chinese. Using a Chinese-speaking person is good, but the explanations may be incomplete.

    MDBG.net gives the following translation: eldest husband of paternal aunt.

    http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/chindict.php?dss=1&wdrst=0&wdqchs=%E5%A4%A7%E5%A7%91%E4%B8%88

  36. Anonymous says:

    The beset cousins diagram I ever saw (and the one that made it click for me) is:

    http://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/anthropology/tutor/descent/cognatic/collateral.html#cousins

    If you explore that set of pages a bit, there’s talk about how different cultures title things.

  37. Anonymous says:

    @Abishek

    >>>

    @Cooney: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskrit#Influence

    "Words originating in Sanskrit are estimated to constitute roughly fifty percent of the vocabulary of modern Indo-Aryan languages, and the literary forms of (Dravidian) Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada."

    <<<<

    This is the part that doesn’t jive. From reading some stuff on linguistics, it appears that the influence flowed the other way, and that the image of sanskrit as some holy tongue (well, it is) with dravidian being a common or degraded form of it was promulgated by a bunch of priests who happened to be the first guys that european anthropologists talked to back in the 19th ct.

    Further, from looking at available information on the region, I would say that unbiased info is hard to come by and frequently unavailable; the best methods seem to be to regard all biased sources as liars until supported through what is basically linguistic archaeology.

    It reminds me of trying to map out the history of japanese martial arts styles – you end up with a big hairball full of people claiming to be the one true master of some obscure style.

  38. Anonymous says:

    I have yet to read this, but I SHALL! It is a question that has nagged at the depths of my mind for a long time – and it kind of fits into the conundrums I have when trying to understand relationships when talking with friends from other countries and cultures.

    Thanks! (I think)

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