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December 23, 2009 > Who is that?

Who is that?

Thanksgiving, the first family get-together of the holiday season, has come and gone but by no means is this the last time the family will sit down together during the holidays. Recalling a table groaning under the weight of too much food and unfamiliar family members, many introduced as an aunt, uncle or cousin creates a sense of wonder. How are these people related to each other and to you?

Is "Cousin Jane" really a cousin or Aunt Rena really your "auntie"? Or have they been awarded these titles by close association with the family? When explanations are offered they can be confusing and erroneous. Layers of relatives mingle in a perplexing maze of multiple generations. Most of us are comfortable with immediate relationships - mom, dad, sister and brother - but grow weary and unsure of where relationships go from there.

Genealogy, the study of ancestry and relationships, has defined how ancestors are linked but even this science suffers from shifting definitions, language variations and use of terminology. However, fundamental understanding of relationships is not too difficult and may provide an understanding of families. At least it can initiate an interesting discussion at social gatherings. Several web sites (type "genealogy" in the browser) are available to help decipher family relationships but before web surfing, the following may help to understand the fundamentals.

A basic approach to understanding family ties is to think of a ladder. Supports are joined by rungs. This ladder may actually have many supports since each rung will link those with direct connections of each generation (i.e. siblings, first cousins, second cousins, etc.). As an example, a brother and sister are directly joined by a rung at the same level of the ladder. Their children are related directly across a rung one step down as first cousins. One level up the ladder on the connecting rung stands a "common ancestor," their mother (and father). Direct connection along a single support is defined by direction. Movement down the support finds son (daughter), grandson, Great Grandson, Great Great Grandson, etc. Movement upwards reveals mother (father), Grandmother, Great grandmother, Great Great grandmother, etc.

If only direct connections across rungs of the ladder are considered, succeeding generations are either siblings (sister/brother) or cousins. Each succeeding generation is labeled as first, second, third, etc. So, if siblings have grandchildren, they would be on the third rung down from the common ancestor (mom) and labeled as "second cousins."

From this point on things begin to become a bit more complex but not too hard to understand. Describing relationships that do not move directly across rungs creates a different nomenclature. Siblings relate to children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. of their sisters and brothers as nieces and nephews. With each succeeding generation the terms "grand" then "great grand" followed by "second great grand" (great, great, grand), third great grand" and so on are added. In return, a niece or nephew will term the relationship as uncle (or aunt), grand uncle, great grand uncle, second great grand uncle, etc.

Returning to the ladder once again, how do cousins relate who, in turn have children, grandchildren, etc.? This is the origin of the infamous term "removed." First cousins who have children are related to the children of their cousins as first cousins "once removed" simply meaning that they have one generation between the children of their first cousins and themselves. Each succeeding generation adds another step or removed. Therefore, the grandchildren of a first cousin remain first cousins but twice removed from the initial relationship... first cousins, twice removed. Confused? Check out the chart below to follow relationships and remember that relationships all stem from a common ancestor. Once found, the rest follows no matter how many times removed or what level of cousin, uncle or aunt.

If more siblings are born from the same common ancestor, a greater number of supports are added to the ladder. It doesn't matter how many supports (siblings) are involved, the relationships remain the same. Additional relationship terminology indicates whether offspring are of the same mother and father or separate parental bloodlines.

Understanding family ancestry and relationships can be a means to personally connect with history, much more gratifying than historical texts. For those who seek adventure, a trip through a family tree can often uncover exciting times with people who share a portion of your genetic code.

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