Thursday, September 11, 2014


'It's a Grand Mistake to Think of Being Great...' Benjamin Franklin with apologies for borrowing only an exerpt of his quote.

This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. 

GRAND UNCLE  noun Another name for Great Uncle   (British Dictionary)

Have you ever found a distant relative and had difficulty in determining whether he or she is a third cousin once removed or a first cousin three times removed? One only needs to peruse numerous online family history discussions, to discover collective confusion about how to calculate family relationships based upon a common ancestor. As a family historian, when compiling your family tree it is important to familiarise yourself with family relationships and to understand the terms which accompany them. A number of family history programs will provide those calculations for you, to assist you in determining who is a first or second cousin, a first cousin once,  twice or thrice removed, or whether your relative is a 5 times great aunt or a 5 times great grand aunt.. Because terminologies used by family history websites and programs vary, you can resolve any confusion by acquainting yourself family relationships.

  Image State Library Qld In Public Domain. Wikimedia

There are numerous family relationship charts available online, to help you to understand and determine your confusing family relationships. I find it practical to keep several of these charts on hand to familiarise myself with cousin, grandparent, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, step, half and the general befuddlement of all family relationships. It has put an end to nights lying awake, almost pulling my hair out whilst trying to  contemplate the exact nature of relationship between myself and the daughter of a daughter of the brother of a four times great grandmother. You might be wondering why I think it essential at all to understand distant kinships. And I can only admit by my own confession, that, one day, like myself, you just might be caught out, describing your relationship to an uncle incorrectly, on an international television program... and by jove you will wish you had made more of an effort. (For more on my misadventure, read on...)

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Now, if cousins aren't confusing enough, family historians invariably encounter other relatives on a grand scale. Some relatives... if you perchance to descend from Nobility... are undeniably grand, but there is still that perpetual genealogical pettifog concerning uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews and whether or not they are great or grand... or both! And it is this very confusion between grand and great which recently caused me to execute a grand familial faux pas, whereby I called an uncle by less than the number of greats he deserved. Of course, no one would be the wiser regarding my error, but for my broadcasting it here in this blog post, however, as a researcher I believe that my mistakes can become learning tools which might assist others their own research.

In Australia, the word grand is not commonly applied to uncles and aunts, nieces or nephews. The only grand relatives I possess, are the parents of my parents and the children of my children - grandparents and grandchildren. As for my great aunts and uncles, no matter how much they have notions of grandeur, and despite's dedication to confusing me, they remain as great family members. After saying this, I must admit that I personally, have come to regard the use of the term 'grand' for uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, as quite useful for genealogical purposes, however, the use of different terminologies can lend itself to some frustration unless you understand them. bestows the nomenclature, grand, upon my uncles and aunts on my public tree. Since is an American based company, I assumed that the use of Grand, was a specifically American terminology for Great. GREAT, according to dictionaries, is indeed interchangeable with GRAND for the siblings of grandparents, however, my many and widely dispersed American cousins have assured me, that my McDade kin in the USA have for generations been GREAT but definitely not GRAND. Intrigued by the origins of the now, in my mind, 'Great Grand Debate', I turned to Irish, Scottish and English genea-friends for help. To  further muddle my mind, they  have all unanimously confirmed that their British and Irish aunts and uncles may be great but not one is the slightest bit grand.

Recently I was confronted with a great/grand conundrum after taking part in the filming of an episode of a television series, where throughout the filming I referred to a convict relative as my great great great uncle. The episode focused in part on the second penal settlement on Norfolk Island and in particular on a convict, to whom I am related.  I have also referred to the same convict in my blogs as my great great great great uncle or 3rd great uncle. Lawrence Frayne was the brother of my convict three times great grandfather, Michael Frayne. No doubt those who have conscientiously studied their relationship charts will note my error immediately! In hindsight, (which always makes its appearance far too late) I see now that I did not give the relationship the thought that it deserved. Nor had I taken the time to determine accurately the relationship. Sometimes, however, it is not until we are actually confronted with a reason to do so, that we bother to to calculate family relationships correctly. Everyone is a cousin or an uncle and in a busy life with limited research time, that seems to suffice!

After filming and during the editing of the episode, I was asked to confirm the relationship with my uncle, as there appeared to the show's researchers to be some confusion. They had determined me to be the great great great grand niece of my convict relative, whereas I, (a family historian who should have known better), had referred to him as my great great great uncle. Although I had on my late nights awake, given a great, perhaps even grand deal of thought to my cousins, I had sadly neglected the aunts and uncles on my family tree. After a number of emails back and forth, further confusing everyone, I consulted relationship charts, several of which seemed to disagree. Finally, I drew up my own chart for my 3rd great grandfather, Michael Frayne and beside him, his brother, Lawrence... and discovered my error!  I found that I am indeed the three times great grand niece of Lawrence Frayne. If I do not wish to use the term grand, then I am this convict's four times great or great great great great niece. I have no idea how many times throughout two days of filming I called Lawrence Frayne my three times great uncle but all I can say is,,,,thank heavens for editing! 

My Great Grandmother Florence Reece-Hoyes nee Morrison. She looks rather grand I think!


Grandparents (the parents of your parents) are afforded the prefix GRAND not great. What I had forgotten, WITH REGARDS TO MY UNCLE, crucially, was that grandparents always have the prefix GRAND, which effectively means great. So when it comes to the siblings of grandparents GREAT and GRAND  MEANS THE SAME THING. Your GRANDfather 's brother is your GREAT Uncle or your GRAND Uncle.

Family relationships would be so much simpler if we had greatparents and great uncles or grandparents and grand uncles. GREAT and GRAND both signify a generation above your parents. So GREAT GREAT or GREAT GRAND would indicate two generations above your parents. Confusion often results from the interchangeable terms great and grand.

I have traced one branch of my Swiss family back to my 11th great grandfather, Christian Häberling, born in Zurich in 1527. Because the 'grand' in grandfather is interchangeable with 'great', my 11 times GREAT GRANDFATHER, in fact, possesses the equivalent of 12 GREATS. (11 greats + 1 grand)

From this logic comes the calculation that the brother of my 11 times great grandfather would also have 12 greats and therefore be my 12 times great uncle.  If I use the term GRAND to replace great, then the brother of my 11 times great grandfather is my 11 times great grand uncle.  The brother of my 3 times great grandfather is both  my 4 times great uncle and my 3 times great grand uncle.  Because of the confusion caused by the difference in the number of greats between grandparents and great uncles and aunts, I can see why Ancestry finds it much simpler to apply grand to  relatives sideways on your tree. 

Image Sharn WHite © My great grandmother in Glasgow Scotland and my great/grand uncle John McDade

In a recent discussion about the use of great or grand for aunts and uncles, genea-friend Kirsty Gray gave me the following excellent advice for remembering greats and grands. 'You have to be grand before you are great'.

I have decided that like the term GRAND. It seems logical to use when calculating relationships for genealogical purposes because grandparents and their siblings have the same number of greats plus one grand. The brother of my three times great grandfather is then my three times great grand uncle.

If you prefer to use GREAT for uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews, you simply need to remember to add one extra great for the grand that is your grandparent. The brother of my three times great grandfather  in this case, is my four times great uncle.


GRANDPARENT-----------------------------GRAND UNCLE


GRANDPARENT-----------------------------GREAT UNCLE

Image Wikimedia Creative Commons ©©

After an exchange of several confusing but ultimately humourous emails between myself and the film company, I reached the conclusion that I was not, as I had believed myself to be, the  great great great niece of Lawrence Frayne. He is of course, still my uncle, however, I had embezzled him of one great!  My direct ancestor Michael Frayne, is my three times great grandfather, therefore, I am the three times great grand niece of his brother OR, alternatively, I am his 4 times great niece. For the purpose of the tv series we went with great great great grand niece. And is time to revisit my old blogs to correct my blunder of familial bond and restore my uncle to one extra measure of greatness.

My error was that I had simply overlooked the significance of GREAT and GRAND and not taken the time to carefully determine this relationship accurately. I have learned from my mistake and now, having thoroughly familiarised myself with ALL relationships on my family tree,  will surely save myself from other stressful situations.  Then again, I take comfort from the words of  Bram Stoker who said in Dracula, 'We learn from failure not from success'.

Frustration.. Image Wikimedia COmmons


The origins of the usage of grand and great for relatives vary according to place, culture and language. The English language has evolved through time from Celtic, Germanic, Roman, Scandinavian and Norman influences.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are several theories as to the origin of the word GRAND in English.  The notion of a grand parent appeared around the 13th century in France and is believed is to be derived from the Old French words grand or graund, meaning of the highest rank. Grandfather in Old French was grand-pere. The word grand  in English could also have its origins in the Latin word grandis, meaning important or great. The Old English word great, implying big also has a similar sound and meaning  to the Dutch and Germanic words of similar meaning, groot and gross. In German a grandfather is Großvater. Great grandfather is der Urgroßvater. The word Gross or Groß means great or large, while the prefix 'ur' can mean ancestral or original.
In Anglo-Saxon English. the word for father was faeder, grandfather was ealdfaeder, great grandfather was known by the term pridda faeder, which quite literally translated as third father.
In Old English the prefixes used for grandparents were ealde (old) and ieldra (older).

In the 13th and 14th centuries grandsire became a more accepted name for a grandfather. The use of grandfather and grandmother is considered to have appeared in England in the 14th and 15th centuries to replace the term grandsire.

My  Irish Great Grandparents or Sheantuismitheoiraimorímór  Image Sharn White©


  1. That subject has always so confused me. My family has always used the term Great and a couple of times I've been picked up on it with people telling me it should be Grand Uncle. Now I know it can be either either, thanks Sharn.

  2. It's time to crumb the cutlets so I'll return and read this later. Just wanted to say that I like the new look of your blog - you've been busy!

  3. I have always used the term great and was similarly confused with's terminology :)