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So I just saw the question: How can you recognize "uncle" is father's brother or mother's brother? (Is there any "default option"? ), and I looked at the Wikipedia article for uncle and the definition at Google, and it seems that the word is limited to siblings of parents or their husbands. In Spanish, the translation, "tío," also covers cousins and uncles of parents, so it's a recursive relationship that stretches infinitely far up the ancestry chain. That means that when you have a family reunion based on a common ancestor, everyone has a personal relationship with everyone.

Is that not the case in English? What do you call the husband of the daughter of the sister of your grandmother, or the son of the brother of your great-grandfather?

36

Uncle and Aunt are only used for siblings of direct ancestors. So my mother's sister is my aunt. My grandmother's sister is my great aunt. Their children and spouses are my cousins of one degree or another.

Here's a chart showing the different types of cousins, though in common use people really just use "cousin" as a generic catch all and I doubt the average person would know this chart.

cousin tree

You can specify uncle and aunt further by stating which side of the family they belong to - male/female. So your father's sister would be your paternal aunt and your mother's brother would be your maternal uncle. Similar to how you have maternal and paternal grandparents.

  • 35
    Technically and in actual usage are two different things. To say that we only ever use these terms for people who are related to us biologically (or through marriage) is very limiting and simply not true. While it may be your personal experience, it's quite common for people to refer to close family friends as "aunt" or "uncle" regardless of being technically family. – Catija Jun 6 '18 at 4:17
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    @Catija: This is true, but by teenage years if not before a native English speaker will have internalized the difference between normal uncles and aunts (which have pretty strict limits), and the purely honorary sort you're talking about (which have no limits at all: even a fairly close relative, or someone who's no relation at all, can be an "uncle"). – Nathan Tuggy Jun 6 '18 at 8:51
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    This may vary by family. I called my mother's cousin "aunt" and her cousin's husband "uncle". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 6 '18 at 13:29
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    Yes, even though aunt and uncle can be used for lots of people with all sorts of relationships, anything other than a parent's sibling will very often be clarified in introductions and descriptions, as in "technically, my great-aunt" or "well, not technically my uncle, he's, like, my second cousin or something" or "not really my aunt; she's my mom's best friend but I always called her 'auntie'." – 1006a Jun 6 '18 at 19:14
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    Another distinction, though I'm sure this varies too: I would normally use "great uncle/aunt" in the strict sense as a noun, but just "Uncle/Aunt {first name}" as a proper noun (including when addressing that person). Ex: "Hello Aunt Alice. Have you met Uncle Bob from my mother's side of the family? He is my great uncle." – aschepler Jun 7 '18 at 10:34
26

The really close meaning of uncle is your mother's or father's brother, but certainly, that is often extended.

I called my grandmother's brother "uncle," although he was technically my "great-uncle." Sometimes, even a close friend of your parents might be called an uncle.

It may be more limited in English than in Spanish, though. My great-uncle is my parent's uncle, but my grandmother's sister's daughter is my parent's first cousin (and my first cousin once-removed), so there is no "uncle" relationship to truncate to "uncle."

Technically speaking, I did call one of my mother's cousins "uncle." But he was only seven years younger than my grandmother and was raised as a brother to my grandma after his mother died in the influenza epidemic in 1918.

One final note: This can be very specific to the family involved. I have some cousins I'm very close to, and sometimes I say to my children, "your Aunt X," even though I'm referring to my cousin and not my sibling.

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    Wow. So sometimes "tío" is not translated to "uncle" but rather "cousin" which is usually "primo" in spanish. – JoL Jun 6 '18 at 2:54
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    My Spanish is pretty limited, unfortunately. If I were speaking directly to my mother's cousin's husband, I'd probably just call him by his name. In English, we use "uncle" as a sort of title. For example, I might talk about my "Uncle Frank" or address him as in "Hello, Uncle Frank." But I just refer to my cousins as "my cousin, Joe" and address them by name as in "Hi, Joe." – joiedevivre Jun 6 '18 at 3:01
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    I might call my mother's cousins (or my cousins' children) just "cousins," unless I really wanted to specify how many "removeds" there were or that they were second or third cousins or something. I'm not sure how many English speakers actually even understand the technicalities involved with "second cousin twice-removed." – joiedevivre Jun 6 '18 at 3:08
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    No, cousin is not limited to one's generation. My grandparents' cousins are my first cousins twice-removed. My first cousin's grandchildren are also my first cousins twice-removed. – joiedevivre Jun 6 '18 at 3:11
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    "Sometimes, even a close friend of your parents might be called an uncle." - That is an important point. In British English, it varies very widely from family to family. In Indian English on the other hand, "uncle" is a general term of respect for an older man. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jun 6 '18 at 13:14
17

Although it seems you are looking for a concrete 'correct' answer, context and your personal relationship to these people is really going to determine what you use than what is technically correct.

Technically

In a technical context, yes, uncle (or aunt) refers only to the siblings (or their spouses) of your parents.

Common Usage

In common usage though, in most English speaking cultures we do not usually apply much formality to the specifics of how we are related. Aunt and Uncle can be used for anyone that fills the role that relationship implies.

For example:

  • I had an Aunt Patty that was actually my dad's cousin.
  • Aunt Patty's children similarly call my parents aunt and uncle.
  • It is not uncommon to refer to close friends of the family as aunt and uncle.
  • I have an uncle that almost everyone just refers to by his first name: He dated my aunt for many years before they married, and by that time the youngest of her nieces and nephews was in their late teens.
  • Although maybe less common than how aunt and uncle are used, on both sides of my family we had 'grandparents' that were not our technical grandparents.
    • One was (I think) the mother of my great-aunt's sister-in-law.
    • The on the other side were the parents of my uncle (married to my mom's sister)

Degrees of Cousinship and Degrees of Removal

In some of the comments on other questions you asked for clarification on how the different degrees of cousinhood are determined. While this isn't something that comes up often outside of specifically discussing how people are related, it is still interesting.

Daniel's answer has a very handy chart labeling them, but it isn't terribly complicated to figure out specifically how you are related to someone if you need to know.

It might help, for the purpose of determining this if you think of a cousin as anyone you share ancestry with, we simply give specific names to zeroth cousins.

  1. Determine the most recent common ancestor (A) shared by yourself(Y) and your cousin(C).
  2. Count the number of generations between Y and A. We'll call this number Ga.
  3. Count the number of generations between C and A. We'll call this number Gc.
  4. Choose the smaller of Ga or Gc and subtract 1. This is the degree of cousinship.
  5. Subtract the lesser of (Ga or Gc) from the greater of (Ga or Gc). This is the degree of removal.

Zeroth cousins are special, they are your:

  • siblings: zeroth cousin zero times removed (closest common ancestor is your parents)
  • parents: zeroth cousin once removed (closest common ancestor is your grandparent)
  • aunts and uncles: also zeroth cousin once removed.
  • grand parents: zeroth cousin twice removed.
  • your children, nieces, and nephews: zeroth cousin once removed (closest common ancestor is your parents)

You are not likely to encounter the term zeroth cousin outside of something like a genealogy website such as International Society of Genetic Genealogy. That site also has a handy table for determining degrees of cousinship and a different explanation of the math.

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    If you permit "themselves" as a "common ancestor", you end up with people in your direct line of ancestors as negative 1 cousins. Which to me seems useful. – Yakk Jun 7 '18 at 15:26
  • @Yakk yes I agree. The the descriptions on the isogg cousins page I linked in the answer actually does take it there. What is listed above regarding zeroth cousins is stuff I had extrapolated myself a couple years ago from the rules. I was just a little surprised/disappointed to find a similar but better model on that site when I was searching for proper terminology. The self-ancestry does allow for distinction for degree between your direct ancestors and their siblings, which not-allowing self ancestry does not. If I find time tonight I may update the answer to reflect it. – Mr.Mindor Jun 7 '18 at 18:59
12

I know you're looking for more familiar terms but the technical answers to your final questions are:

What do you call the husband of the daughter of the sister of your grandmother?

  • The sister of your grandmother = your great-aunt.
  • The daughter of your great-aunt = your parent's first cousin = your first cousin, once removed (where 'removed' means a shift in generation, upwards or downwards.)
  • The husband of your first cousin, once removed = your first cousin, once removed, in law.

... or the son of the brother of your great-grandfather?

  • The brother of your great-grandfather = your great-great-uncle.
  • The son of your great-great-uncle = your first cousin, twice removed.
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    I'm also familiar with the term "cousin by marriage" to refer to the spouse of my parent's sibling's child. (i.e. my cousin's spouse.) – arp Jun 7 '18 at 23:35
  • @arp: Yes! In fact, that's a better and more commonly-used term than "in-law." Nice one! – Mike Synnott Jul 16 '18 at 15:43
7

See @MikeSynnott's answer for the correct technical terms.

As he notes, you're looking for familiar terms, but it's not easy to give you an answer that will satisfy you.

Once you get beyond the immediate relationships like "uncle" that are clear and easy to define, it often comes down to family preference as to how people refer to each other, and usage may differ from family to family, or even within a family.

For example, my Uncle Joe is my father's brother, so is my uncle. However, my children also refer to him as Uncle Joe, even though technically he is their Great Uncle. But my mother's sister, Betty is referred to by all the family as Great Aunt Betty; even my siblings who don't have children call her that, despite her not having a 'Great Aunt' relationship to them at all.

Why do we do that? I don't honestly know. It's just how the family works. Joe is a warm, fatherly figure with a close relationship to us all, and calling him "Uncle" helps to cement that. Betty is more of a matriarchal, older-generation figure; calling her "Great Aunt" seems to add dignity and gravitas.

Another example is my cousin's daughter. Technically she is my "first cousin, once removed". However, we just refer to each other as cousins, because it's easier that way. My kids also just call her "cousin", even though technically for them he is their "second cousin". Same with my half-sister; we never bother with the prefix "half" because it diminishes the relationship. We're just brother and sister.

Overall, I think in most cases, where you have a family relationship that is close enough that people consider themselves part of the same family, they will generally just use the single-word "cousin", "aunt" or "uncle"; whichever is most appropriate. The "great" qualifier may be used in some cases, but probably not much else. People will only likely use the actual technically correct terms when they actually need to be technically correct about the relationship; for example, when they're explaining the family relationship to an outsider. But within the family, they generally won't bother.

The only other term that I've heard used which may be useful is "distant cousin" (or "distant uncle", etc), which may be used when describing a family relationship that is further removed than the simple direct cousin relationship, but where you don't feel the need to discuss the exact relationship (or where you simply don't know it). Examples: "A distant uncle died, and left me a small inheritance". Or "Hi. You don't know me, but we're distant cousins, and I'm organising a family re-union."

5

In Britain, we understand the precise meaning of 'Uncle' (a sibling of one of your parents) but also frequently use it as an honorific for adult 'friends of the family'. Children may be instructed to call the (maybe transitory) male partners of their unmarried mother 'uncle'. My friend who lives in a multi-ethnic part of East London tells me that his West Indian neighbours often call him 'uncle' as a respectful title for an older man. I believe the Asian community use 'auntie' to describe a mother's extended circle of female friends, whether strictly related or not. When I lived for a time in the same house as my grandfather and father - if you own a house in London, family tend to arrive - I called both of them 'Dad'. When it was necessary to differentiate, I'd say 'my Dad'.

2

Here in Singapore, 'auntie' and 'uncle' are used as a term of respect to older individuals, be they related, acquainted, or not. As I understand, this usage is a direct translation of 阿姨 and 叔叔, which are in common usage for the same purpose among at least the considerable local Chinese population.

All this to say, it's a word with a lot of cultural significance, and its meaning can vary by context.

0

There are other answers here which make clear that "uncle" and "aunt" are sometimes used to describe relatives who are really removed cousins.

No one else has discussed how free someone outside the family is to use that terminology to describe those relationships.

If you're outside the family, it would be okay to follow the family's lead and use the word "uncle" for your parent's cousin if they have already revealed that that's what they say.

But if you don't know how those people label their relationship, you're best off using the correct expression - either "cousin" without specifying the generation removed, or, "cousin once removed" if you do need to specify that level of precision.

0

My parents are both only children. As such, I have no proper uncles or aunts. However, growing up I had lots of relatives that I called Uncle, Aunt, or Auntie. My great-aunt (my mother's actual aunt) currently lives with my parents. I call her by her first name, whereas I call her older sister "Auntie". Most of my "uncles" and "aunts" are actually cousins, all second cousins or further removed because I have no real aunts or uncles to have first cousins.

I used to be in a relationship with someone whose extended family would tell the young children to call long-term unmarried partners of their older cousins "Uncle" or "Auntie".

So, strictly speaking, yes, aunts and uncles are only your parents' siblings and their spouses. In actual use, it can vary by what is acceptable within a family.

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