There is never a dull moment at the public library. I swear I’m not making any of this up. Today’s installment of Librarian in a Banana Suit is brought to you by the patron who walked into the library last weekend wanting to know, “Would my brother’s son be my cousin’s daughter’s third cousin, or second?” She looked imploringly at me. I looked back. “We’re having a family dispute about a couple who wants to get married,” she continued.
It took me several seconds to draw the family tree in my head. Actually we had to draw it on paper. “I’m not sure…” I hesitated.
Turning to the copy of Webster’s 1993 Unabridged Dictionary that sits behind the reference desk, where passers-by often stand to spy on us, we flipped to the “C”s and read that “cousin” (def. 1c) is:
a relative descended from one’s grandparent or from a more remote ancestor by two or more steps and in a different line; a distinction often being made between (1) those descended an equal number of steps and (2) those descended an unequal number of steps from a common ancestor <the children of first ~s are second ~s to each other, the children of second ~s are third ~s, etc.><the child of one’s first ~ is one’s first ~ once removed, the latter’s child is one’s first ~ twice removed, etc., though these are often called also second and third ~s respectively.>
“So that makes them third cousins!” she said, relieved. “Well, I don’t know if that’s really what they are saying,” I hesitated again, squinting long and hard at Webster’s definition.