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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: What Makes a Cousin?
by Rhonda R. McClure

October 25, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

One of the most frequent questions I receive has something to do with how the writer of the message and someone they know are related. There is much confusion about cousins and relationships in general and who is related by blood and who isn't.

It is understandable that when you get back a few generations and your line goes for more generations than the other person's that it can get confusing. If you have both lines in a genealogy program, like Family Tree Maker, then you can have the computer figure the relationship for you. If you prefer though, there are other ways to calculate the relationship.

Cousins share a blood relationship.

What is a Cousin?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary define's the word cousin as a child of one's uncle or aunt. The New A to Zax goes into a little more detail

    1)child of a sibling; 2) sometimes used to indicate a relationship by marriage rather than blood; 3) in early New England it can mean a niece or nephew; 4) sometimes used to refer to a close friend; 5) used to refer to someone who is kin, but the exact relationship is unknown.

Perhaps this is why we seem to be so confused about this term, there are so many definitions.

When you use the term "cousin" in general, then you are often referring to what we more precisely term a first cousin. A first cousin is the child of your aunt or uncle, or the child of one of your parents' siblings. The blood relationship in such an instance is easy to figure — you and your cousin share the same grandparents.

Blood or Marriage?

While the A to Zax definition alludes to friendship and marriage as definitions for the word cousin, these definitions are intended to alert you so that you do not make any misconceptions when it comes to reading that term in old documents and letters. When dealing with present-day relationships, a cousin is a blood relation of some sort.

Often I have received questions asking how a person is related to the sister of their husband's brother-in-law and other obscure relationships. The answer is there is no relationship. When a marriage is the only connection between two individuals, then there is no cousinship in the true sense of the word. The most you can claim with this person is a shirt tail cousin. The cousinship is riding on the shirt tails of someone.

Most relationships through marriage cease beyond that immediate connection. The parents of my husband are my mother-in-law and father-in-law. His siblings are my sisters-in-law. My brother though doesn't call my husband's sisters his sisters-in-law. Even if the various individuals are close to each other, there is no name for the relationship nor are they cousins of any kind.

In Conclusion

Indeed there are relationships and charts to help you plot relationships when they are legitimate. However, there are times when there just isn't any real cousinship between two individuals, no matter how close they are with their feelings for each other.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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