I was discussing my family research with my children the other day and telling them about someone who was "a second cousin twice removed". I have talked like this before, my son is fascinated by the idea that he is Jane Austen's sixth cousin seven times removed, but I didn't realise quite how opaque this sort of terminology can be until my son asked, "What's a second cousin?" and my daughter screwed up her face and asked "So what's with this removed thing anyway?" And then I realised my mum didn't quite get it either. It turns out I have been speaking a foreign language to most of my family for the last few years. At least. Time to fix it.
Let's start with first, second, third, etc. cousins, because that's the really easy bit:
Joan and Albert are siblings. They each marry and have children. Their children are cousins. We all get that, most of us are cousins to someone else. Cousins are also called first cousins, I suppose because they are one step from the siblings.
Joan's grandchildren and Albert's grandchildren are all second cousins, because they are two steps from the siblings.
Joan's great grandchildren and Albert's great grandchildren are all third cousins, because they are three steps from the siblings, and so on.
If you think of it as a family tree heading down from a source, you are looking at people who are on the same generational row as each other. They are all cousins, the number depends on how far down they are from the source siblings.
All well and good, but what if you are trying to work out the relationship between people who are not on the same generational row? That's where "removed" comes in.
The tough bit is going to be working out how to explain this simply.
When you are talking about "three times removed" or "eight times removed" or "z times removed", you are actually describing how far you have to go to find someone on your line in the same generational row as your target person.
Using the above chart, I can work out the relationship of Ruth (on Albert's side) to Rita (on Joan's side). First I need to find someone in Ruth's line who is in the same generational row as Rita. That's Arthur.
What is the relationship of Arthur to Rita? Because I have colour-coded the chart, it is easy to see that Arthur and Rita are first cousins. So we know Ruth and Rita are going to be "first cousins z times removed". For the next bit you may find it easier to cover up everyone below Rita on her side of the chart, leaving only Arthur's line visible.
To work out the "removed", we need to count how many generations Ruth is from Arthur. The answer is two. So Ruth and Rita are "first cousins twice removed".
Another way to put it is to ask yourself these questions:
How far in generations is person A from person B?
How far is person B from the sibling pair?
The first question gives you "times removed", the second question gives you the cousin number.
For a last example I have included a chart of my relationship to Jane Austen. Yes, as my husband never fails to point out, it is very distant, but in this case that is precisely the point. I have only included the directly relevant people in the tree, leaving off all other siblings, in order to simplify things (apologies to my siblings particularly). Also, I have colour-coded the cousin rows with strong colours. Once things move beyond common generations you will notice that I have used only one colour, a pastel shade (approximately) of the last cousin colour used, to show that I have found the cousin number and am now dealing in removes.
If this is clear as mud, try Wikipedia. They have a really good explanation which includes such things as double cousins, half cousins and cousins-in-law