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Improving Your Family Tree by Understanding Genealogical Relationship Terms

Are you familiar with the most common genealogy terms regarding family relationships? Some are used in everyday life, while others are only used in genealogy research. Knowing the meaning of these terms can help you create a richer and more accurate family tree. Here’s what you need to know.

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Believe it or not, simply knowing the meanings of some common genealogy terms can help you expand and improve your family tree research. While the concept of a family tree is simple in and of itself, there are certain genealogy terms that you either rarely hear, or only hear in conjunction with genealogy research. Some of these terms may be new to you, while others are more familiar. However, even with the familiar terms, you should still gain a deeper understanding of the words and phrases in order to apply them fully to your own family research and get the best results from the knowledge.

Here are some genealogical terms and their meanings that you should know.

Affinal — Affinal is a common genealogy term that is not used too much in other parts of life. If you have not come across it in your research yet, you will. It means “being related to someone by marriage.” Affinal relationships are designated on family trees, and in everyday speech, as “in law.”

Consanguine — Another genealogy term you will usually only find in the world of genealogy research, this word means “of the same blood” in its direct translation. Essentially, a consanguine relation is a genetic relation. Anyone to whom you are related by genetics (or “blood,” as in old-fashioned phrasing) is a consanguine relative.

Many affinal relationships can be described using consanguine words simply by adding “in law” to them. Examples of this would be brother-in-law (“brother” being consanguine and “in law” being affinal) and cousin-in-law (again, with “cousin” being the consanguine word and “in law” being the affinal word).

Once you know these terms, you can move on to a deeper understanding of some of the more common terms that you may use in everyday life. Your “root” relatives (those without whom you would not exist), such as your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, are relatives with the potential to help you discover and correctly place new aunts, uncles, cousins and affinal relations on your family tree.

Most of us know our grandparents, and the majority of genealogists probably also know all of their great-grandparents (though knowing all of them is not as common in non-genealogical circles). It is when you get back to the preceding generation of great-great-grandparents that even the most experienced genealogists can begin to run into brick walls. These generations are harder to trace because they are farther back in history, and they may have many branches of your family coming from them, which means records on them may be harder to find (as you might not know all of the branches or who ended up with certain documents or heirlooms originating with them).

A great-grandparent is the parent of one of your grandparents, and a great-great-grandparent is the parent of one of your great-grandparents. Each subsequent generation of grandparents you go back adds another “great” onto the relationship’s title. Once you get past great-great-great-grandparent, people in genealogical circles usually just say “fourth great,” fifth great,” “sixth great” and so on, to avoid having to say all those “greats” individually. When you go far enough back in time that you have twenty-six “greats” in front of a direct grandparent’s relationship to you, you definitely don’t want to have to say all of those “greats” out loud. “Twenty-sixth great-grandmother” is the perfect, and genealogically correct, way to go.

Each generation gap between a genealogist and a grandparent of however many “greats” increases the likelihood of records being lost, making that ancestor more challenging to trace. Other members of your family tree of the same generation and line may be lost as well because you can’t find the appropriate “great” grandparent. Tracing those “greats” increases your chances of finding and placing other relatives in the same generation, with each new “great” you discover, and thus makes your family tree bigger, richer, more interesting, and more accurate.

In addition to the “greats” on your family tree, there are also the cousins. This is where a lot of genealogists get tripped up, even experienced ones. When you start talking about third and eighth cousins once or ten times removed, it becomes challenging to determine exactly how they are related to you.

When it comes to first, second, third, and other round-numbered cousins (without the “times removed” on the relationship), it is quite easy to determine. Just remember that first cousins share the same grandparents as you (but aren’t your siblings). Second cousins share the same great-grandparents as you. Third cousins share the same great-great-grandparents as you, and so on down the cousin line.

When you add “removed” onto the relationship, just remember that the word, when applied to cousins, designates how many generations away from each other you are on your family tree. As an example, a second cousin twice removed is a grandchild of your second cousin… the child is removed from you by two generations. You and your second cousin share a set of great-grandparents, then your second cousin’s child is one generation removed from the relationship with your second cousin, and their grandchild is two generations removed.

You can often imagine a “cousin pyramid” in your mind to determine cousin relationships. A basic one includes our shared set of grandparents or great-grandparents (of however many “greats”) are at the top of the pyramid, then your parents and their siblings are the second level, and you and your first cousins are the third level. Any generations who come after you on the “cousin pyramid” are removed from you by however many generations they are from your round number cousin relationship with their parents. To add more generations going backward (however many “greats” you need to add to a direct grandparent), just make the farthest generation back you are going the top of the pyramid, and count down the generations from there. Any cousin who is on the same generation line as you is a round number cousin. Cousins up or down the line from you are removed.

Creating a richer, more detailed, and accurate family tree is as easy as that.



Will founded Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been assisting researchers for over 25 years to reunite them with their ancestors.