Jul 092015
 
Cousin once removed by way of staple remover on family tree.

A cousin once removed isn’t what (or who) it sounds like it is.

Why was my cousin once removed? Maybe that’s why my family dispensed with the first cousin, second cousin, and once removed nomenclature when referring to cousins: They knew I’d ask a bunch of questions, most of which would begin with “Why…” Cousins were just “cousins.”

“Once removed” doesn’t sound anything like it means. Unlike its general use in the English vernacular, when it’s used to describe family relationships, removed simply means from a different generation. I now think of it as “more distant in age.” A first cousin once removed might be a first cousin of my parents’ generation or my children’s generation. (See Genealogy.com’s primer.)

Many people treat the “once removed” system much like atomic numbers on the periodic table. It’s enough that some people understand the system, but perhaps not critical that we all understand how the numbers are derived. In fact, when I share the fact that George Washington is my 4th cousin ten times removed, my non-genealogist-friends’ eyes glaze over. They don’t ask, “Oh, how does that work?” They simply say, “Oh,” or “Whatever.”

Which begs the question, at least in my mind, of where the whole system of naming our cousins came from.

once removed demonstarted by relationship chart

Cousins aren’t limited to being once removed. George Washington is my 4th cousin 10 x removed.

According to Oxford Dictionary’s blog post, Relational logic: removing the confusion from the naming of cousins, when it comes to defining family relationships, as the English language has developed, it’s gotten vaguer. Up until about 1150, there were different phrases for a cousin who was your father’s brother’s son versus his sister’s daughter. (And that’s the way it still is in other cultures and languages.) By the 17th century, English speakers were using “first cousin” to describe relatives that shared the same grandparents. But, that wasn’t a hard and fast rule. It was also used to indicate various sorts of familial significance. When it comes to our speech, we English speakers are pretty inclusive of family members.

Then comes the befuddling once, twice, thrice “removed” system. In fact, Relational logic says that many people mistakenly think that a first cousin once removed is equivalent to second cousins. Logical as that sounds, that’s not the case. A first cousin once removed is either your cousin’s child or one of your parent’s cousin.

What’s the Etymology of Once Removed?

So who started the removal process?

I’m having a hard time uncovering the etymology of the removed system. The Online Etymology Dictionary points out that in this usage, removed is an adjective meaning separated or secluded, not the past participle of the verb remove.

Not that anyone has asked me, but I find it counter-intuitive. We’re not accustomed to the adjective form (dating from the 1600s) of “removed.”

To our understanding, something isn’t “removed” without a party going around doing the removing. It has a negative connotation. We think of something that is no longer in our presence, implying a loss of that object or person. Even if we think of removing ourselves from a conversation—it still has a negative connotation. We’re just keeping mum or leaving before we say something we regret.

To my mind, there’s an implicit lack of logic in the once removed nomenclature. If we have a cousin once removed, can we also have one that’s once added? For instance, when my cousin Sue Ellen had her daughter Jenn, in my mind, we added her to the clan of cousins.

Of course, from a lineage standpoint it probably doesn’t make sense. If you take removed to mean distant, Jenn is a slightly more distant cousin than Sue Ellen. But I hope no one removes her.

Alas, I’m not allowed to run the world—or even the English language. Yet.

 Your Turn:

Do you know when the system of “once removed” began? Any theories?

Share your thoughts