Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Grand or Great? What ARE The Siblings Of Your Grandfather Properly Called? (March 10, 2015)

When I was growing up, I had several "aunts." There was my father's sister Priscilla -- my Aunt Priscilla. My mother had a younger sister -- my Auntie Lois -- who was referred to using the informal, diminutive form of aunt to distinguish her from my maternal grandmother's sister Lois, who was known as Aunt Lois. My maternal grandmother's eldest sister was my Aunt Helen. Then there was my paternal grandfather's older sister Edna -- my Aunt Edna -- and my paternal grandmother's sisters . . . my Aunt Helena, my Aunt Josephine, and my Aunt Olga.

There were also other "aunts" that I had. There was my Uncle David's wife Roberta -- my "Aunt Roberta." And there was my Uncle John's wife Marilyn -- my "Auntie Marilyn" (why the informal, diminutive form was used for Marilyn I have no idea).

Whenever I met (or referenced in casual conversation) any of the above women, I always referred to them as Aunt (or Auntie) ____. But, if on occasion I was asked to explain just how any of these women fit into my genealogy, I defined my grandmothers' sisters and my paternal grandfather's sister as my "great Aunts." The wives of my uncles were defined as my aunts in the same way that the husbands of my Aunt Priscilla and my Auntie Lois were defined as my uncles.

I think these uses of the relationship terms of "aunt" and "uncle" to describe the spouse of a parent's sibling is fairly common.  And the use of the term "great aunt" or "great uncle" to describe the sibling of a grandparent is widely used. The problem is, however, that the use of those terms in each case seems entirely wrong to me now.

It is perhaps easier to understand why the description of the spouse of a parent's sibling as an aunt or uncle is technically incorrect because there is no blood/genetic relationship to such persons. There is no sharing of a common ancestor because the relationship is merely a legal one created through a marriage (and thus can be broken by a legal divorce). A blood/genetic relationship exists only where there is a common ancestor shared between people -- and that relationship cannot be broken or end because of the cessation of a legally created connection such as a marriage. For this reason (as the "View Relationship To Me" tool in Ancestry.com will tell you), the spouse of the sibling of one's parent is technically and properly described not as an "aunt" or "uncle," but rather such persons are correctly described as the "wife or husband of my uncle of aunt" -- as the case may be.

And that brings us to the use of the term "great aunt" or "great uncle" to describe the sibling of one's grandparent. It is a fairly common descriptor for the sibling of a grandparent, but it is logically, technically, and descriptively incorrect IMHO ("In My Humble Opinion').

Any sibling of one's grandparent (absent an adoption) is, of course, a blood/genetic relative because there is a shared common ancestor. So it is also a relationship that cannot be broken nor cease to exist once it is established at birth.

Once it is clear that siblings of ancestors are blood/genetic relations it makes logical sense that the relationship descriptors should follow a pattern that is in keeping with the line of ancestor parentage going back through the generations. Thus, when you use the terms parent, grandparent, great grandparent, great, great grandparent, et seq., you immediately understand the generational relationship between yourself and the ancestor in your line by the descriptor used to identify the ancestor.

So does it make any logical sense to call the sister of your grandfather your "great aunt" when she, like your grandfather, is two generations removed from you? Your grandfather's father is your great grandfather and he is three generations removed from you, so if you call your grandfather's sister your great aunt it makes it seem like she is also three generations removed from you because she shares the appellation "great" with your great grandparents who are clearly three generations removed from you. This introduces unnecessary confusion. If the parent of your father is your "grand" parent, then the sibling of your grandparent should logically and technically be described as your "grand" aunt or "grand" uncle to make it crystal clear which generation he or she belongs to in relation to you.

As posted at the Family Tree Magazine blog several years ago, the logic, technical accuracy, and clarity of the above explanation can be illustrated as follows. . .

               Parent                                        Aunt or Uncle

               Grandparent                             Grandaunt of Granduncle

               Great-Grandparent                   Great-Grandaunt or Great-Granduncle

               Great-Great-Grandparent         Great-Great-Grandaunt or Great-Great-Granduncle

I completely agree with the view expressed by Jackie Smith Arnold that, "Mixing the generations causes confusion" and that It’s a mistake to lump [grandaunts and granduncles] in with the greats.  I would merely modify Ms Arnold's observation by stating that mixing the generations causes "unnecessary" confusion and that the confusion can be further eliminated and the descriptors further simplified by completely disassociating the "grands" from the "greats" in the manner shown below.

Just as the descriptor "aunt" or "uncle" makes it clear the person bearing such an appellation is a relative and not an ancestor, having the descriptor "grandfather" or "grandmother" makes it clear the person having that appellation is an ancestor -- and the number of "greats" tells us instantly how any generations back.  Continuing the use of the descriptor "grandaunt" or "granduncle" through the generations adds nothing to determining the relationship of the particular aunt or uncle in question.  Simply observe the number of greats and one instantly knows to which great grandparent (and which generation) the aunt or uncle belongs. It is unnecessary to carry the "grand" part of the aunt or uncle down the generations and serves to unnecessarily continue a mix of the "grands" with the "greats." 

               Parent                                        Aunt or Uncle

               Grandparent                             Grandaunt of Granduncle

               Great-Grandparent                   Great-Aunt or Great-Uncle

               Great-Great-Grandparent         Great-Great-Aunt or Great-Great-Uncle

So, to answer the questions posed in the title to this post, the sister of your grandfather is most technically, appropriately, logically, and unconfusingly called your "Grandaunt" and not your "Great-aunt." And the brother of your grandmother is most technically, appropriately, logically, and unconfusingly called your "Granduncle" and not your "Great-uncle."  ;-)

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"Chart 167" borrowed from Deep-Fried Hoodsie Cups blog by Mark John Astolfi at https://deepfriedhoodsiecups.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/g4bb-49-5-worst-mistakes/ and used for illustration purposes only.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Copyright 2015, John D. Tew
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


  1. Wow! An actual comment from my son! :-)

    I thought about introducing the term, but one step at a time. And the companion descriptor for Gruncle, would be a Graunt, which does not have the same fun sound being so close to "Grunt." ;-)

  2. Thank you for taking on this topic - it's been one of my pet peeves for a while. But my family has so little interest in genealogy I don't want to trample it with the concept of grand-aunt rather than great aunt. Besides I get called a great aunt by my niece's children and I like being great. Still it should be grand-aunt.

  3. Thank you for commenting. It has been a peptide of mine too. Even though I used to refer to my grandparents' siblings as "Great Aunts" or Great Uncles" I later realized it made no sensing was confusing. Many people disagree so I expect the controversy will continue -- but I come down on the side of the grands! :-)