Cousins or nephews?

Ayleen: They look a lot alike, don’t they? (showing photo). They’re my nieces, Romina and Alejandra.

Ale y Romi 4
Romina and Alejandra

Gary: What do you mean by your nieces? your sister doesn’t have any children.

Ayleen: I know my sister doesn’t have any children, the girls are my cousins’ children.

Gary: Your cousins’ children? Well, in English your cousins’ children are your cousins too. The exact term for a cousin’s child is cousin once removed.

Ayleen: Cousin once removed? Removed from what? I’ve never heard that in my life. I can’t picture someone introducing me to their cousin once removed, “Ayleen, please meet my cousin once removed” haha.

Gary: Haha, that’s why we just call them cousins. Do you call them nieces and nephews in Spanish?

Ayleen: Yes, in Spanish a cousin’s child is our sobrino segundo.  We just call them sobrino or sobrina. It’s easy to get confused because the literal translation for sobrina is niece. That’s why I told you “Romina and Alejandra are my nieces”. 

This is a real conversation I had with a native English speaker. I had no idea that the translation for sobrino segundo was first cousin once removed. Any Spanish speaker would be prone to think that the translation for sobrino segundo is second nephew, at least that’s what I thought. I was wrong.

Sobrino RAE
Real Academia de la Lengua Española (RAE)

According to RAE, in Spanish your cousin’s child is your sobrino segundo. The word “nephew” is used to describe this relationship. However, as shown in the Oxford and Longman dictionaries your cousin’s child is your first cousin once removed. In English the word “cousin” is used to describe this relationship. There lies the confusion.

Longman Dictionary
Oxford dictionary

If you aren’t confused yet, wait until I introduce you to a couple of other kinship terms. We have the term second cousin, common sense tells you that if there are second cousins, there have to be first cousins too, right? Confused now?

So, what’s the difference between first cousin and second cousin? and cousin once removed and second cousin? Pictures speak louder than words they say, so I drew my family tree in an attempt to exemplify how it works. It’s headed by my grandparents Alicia and Luis; their children Pablo and Hilda (in reality they had 10 children but for the sake of this explanation I will only consider two); and their grandchildren, Emily, Giannina, Liseth and myself.

My family tree

Emily, Giannina, Liseth and I belong to the same generation; as children of siblings, we are first cousins or commonly called cousins.

Around 10 years ago, Giannina and Liseth had children; their children Romina and Alejandra are one generation further on than Emily and me. According to the standard symmetrical terminology used by most genealogists, Romina and Emily (or Romina and I) are therefore first cousins once removed (not, as is quite often thought, second cousins).

Emily and I don’t have children, but if we had children they would belong to the same generation as Romina and Alejandra: as children of first cousins, they would be second cousins.

Neither of us in the conversation used precise kinship terms when talking about our relatives, but generalized with catch-all terms such as cousin or nephew. Sometimes when we are not sure, we just use the word distant cousin or primo lejano in Spanish.


  • Giannina is my first cousin, or simply cousin.  (same generation)
  • Liseth is also my cousin. (same generation)
  • Romina is my first cousin once removed. (different generations)
  • Alejandra is my first cousin once removed. (different generations)
  • If I had a child, my child and Romina would be second cousins. (same generation)
  • If I had a child, my child and Alejandra would be second cousins. (same generation)

Here is the correct translation to Spanish:

  • Cousin, first cousin = primo, primo carnal o primo hermano.
  • Second cousin = primo segundo
  • First cousin once removed = sobrino segundo

Now take a look at your family tree and try to figure out how people are related to you!

Language level: B2


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