Helping Patrons Find Out If They’re Second Cousins, Before They Get Hitched

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.

Family Tree(Disclaimer: this is not really her family tree)

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.

Next we typed it into the Google search bar: “second cousin definition.”  Genealogy.com popped up in the results, just after Wikipedia.  That seemed like a reputable source!  Thanks, information literacy skills.  Confidently, I clicked the link:

Your second cousins are the people in your family who have the same great-grandparents as you, but not the same grandparents. Your third cousins have the same great-great-grandparents, fourth cousins have the same great-great-great-grandparents, and so on.

We were both very excited about the simplicity of this definition.  Google one-ups Webster’s, once again!  But then the woman started counting back the generations of grandparents.  “Oh,” she concluded, “I guess they really are second cousins after all.”  She faltered.  “Well, I don’t really care anyway.  They’re getting married, so what?  Who cares!”  I felt bad for her that she wasn’t going to get to rub it in to her relatives, but happy about her exuberant acceptance of the young couple’s love.  “Oh, and just one more thing,” she added. “Can you check to see whether that’s legal?”

I had to tell her that, unfortunately, we do not provide legal counsel at the public library reference desk.

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