How can I know the exact meaning of the word cousin in a sentence? How do English speakers distinguish between different kinds of cousins?

(Arabic distinguishes both the sex of the cousin and the side of the family —Cindi/Google)

  • Please make your question more understandable. And provide an example... What sentence is not clear for you?
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 11:12
  • You mean child's of "aunt" or "uncle"? is it possible? i think better to read the rest of reading to find out or simply ask the one who said it.
    – Gigili
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 11:28
  • @zizi: What does your first question is about?
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 11:39
  • @Alenanno: I guess, he means that how we understand which one does cousin stand for: child's of aunt or child's of uncle! plus i smell problem from your question.
    – Gigili
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 12:01
  • 1
    @zizi, @Alenanno, I've edited the original question, attempting to guess at what the OP really wants to know. Commented May 9, 2011 at 12:39

5 Answers 5


Your question is very unclear, but I suspect that you're wondering if English has a way to distinguish between any of these kinds of relationships:

  • male cousin vs. female cousin
  • cousin on your mother's side vs. cousin on your father's side
  • child of your father's sister vs. child of your father's brother
  • etc.

The answer is no. English uses the same word cousin for all of these relationships, and there is no single word that distinguishes between any of these combinations. If you really need to specify the gender, for example, you can say "male cousin" or (more informally) "boy cousin". If you want to specify whether you're related to a cousin through your mother or through your father, you say "cousin on my mother's side" or "cousin on my father's side".

Many other languages have separate words for at least some of these relationships, but English doesn't. English speakers get along just fine without special words for these relationships, and often find it very difficult to consistently make these distinctions when learning a foreign language.

  • 5
    We can, however, distinguish the closeness and generation of cousins (first/second cousins, once/twice removed). In Shakespearian English, "cousin" is even more general than it is today, and could include an uncle or a niece.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 12:41
  • 1
    But we don't always use these distinctions (first, second, once removed...). I doubt even the majority of English speakers even knows the rules on who is or isn't a second cousin or how once/twice removed is determined. Even aunt and uncle can refer to more distant adult relations and even close friends of the family in some cases.
    – Jay Elston
    Commented Jul 31, 2011 at 17:14

English, as famous as it is for having a large vocabulary coming from a Germanic and Romance base and bolstered by a huge influx of Latin and Greek neologisms, is notoriously lacking in kinship terms. There is little distinction in terms of sex/ side of family, marriage relation,

So the answer to your question is there is no -easy- fluent way to translate exactly. You'd have to say in English 'my mother's sister's son' to specify the real family tree relation.

  • 1
    +1. In other words if it matters to distinguish them exactly, for ابن خالتي we say ابن أخت أمي, but usually we just say cousin, just as جدي can be أبو أبي or أبو أمي.
    – psmears
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 14:52

How can I know the exact meaning of "cousin" in a sentence? How do English speakers distinguish between different kinds of cousins?

How do you tell if a person being discussed is left handed or right handed? If you needed to know, the speaker should have told yuou.

If the usage and context doesn't provide you enough information to determine this, either the speaker made an error or the speaker didn't intend for you to have this information. Necessary information will be missing if speakers make errors. And, of course, there's no way to extract information from a sentence that the speaker chose not to put in there.


You need to add modifiers.

In fact, cousin is a very general word. English has thirteen commonly-used kinship terms (+ many synonyms):

  • mother & father
  • grandmother & grandfather *
  • brother & sister
  • uncle & aunt
  • husband & wife
  • son & daughter
  • cousin

For anything else, we have to add modifiers like great, grand, full, half, step, maternal, paternal or in-law. And if you want to specify the sex of your cousin, you can add the modifier male.

(* I included grandmother and grandfather in the list above because they have been lexicalised -- in ordinary speech we treat them as words in their own right, rather than modifications of mother and father.)

There is also a system of terminology that genealogists use to describe relationships exactly, but I don't think your question was about specialist jargon.

  • 2
    It seems that we once had a word for maternal uncle that was different from one’s paternal uncle: eam, eme. At some point the maternal/paternal part was dropped, at which point it became an exact synonym of the existing uncle as was therefore exterminated.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 4:13
  • Interesting. And I'd be even more interested to know what prompted you to add this comment more than a year after I posted this answer.
    – Pitarou
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 10:08

As JSBangs said, there are not several different words for cousins to distinguish between maternal and paternal cousins or the gender of the cousins. The only terms we have are the ones that differentiate generation.

First cousin, or simply 'cousin', refers to the child of your aunt or uncle. Or to put it another way, people with the one set of matching grandparents.

Second cousin refers to the child of your parents first cousin, or one set of matching great-grandparents.

The removed qualifier is added to show that you are one level off from the above definition. So if your grandparents are their great-grandparents (i.e. your cousin's kid) you would be first cousins once removed.

  • But note that "cousin" used without qualifiers is normally understood to include second cousins, etc. You really need to say "first cousin" if you want to restrict it.
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 18:00

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