When Catholics are defending the perpetual virginity of Mary, we often have to explain to others that, in Jewish culture, cousins were often considered a person's "brothers" or "sisters". While there exists a Greek word for "cousin", there exists no equivalent Hebrew or Aramaic word, which is why Jesus's cousins were identified, in some passages, as his brothers and sisters. While much of the New Testament was written in Greek (with some possible exceptions, such as Matthew), the inspired authors were writing in accordance to their Jewish customs. One legal reason for this is that, should a person die an only child, his male cousins would be considered his brothers for purposes of distributing an inheritance.
We live in such a vastly different culture today, though, and for whatever reason, it has become necessary for us to have, not just a word for our cousin, but linguistic devices for determining exactly what type of cousin he is. We might, for instance, have a "first cousin", a "second cousin", or even a "first cousin, once-removed".
In a lunchroom conversation yesterday, however, I realized that most people no-longer know the meaning of the terms "once-removed" or "twice-removed", words which previous generations used more frequently. So ... I thought I would use this blog as an opportunity to clarify.
Cousins must be of the same generation. For instance, if I have the same grandparents as somebody else, we are first-cousins. If I have the same great-grandparents, we are second-cousins. If we have the same great-great-grandparents, we are third cousins. Many, incorrectly assume that my mother's first-cousin would be my second cousin. However, the only way someone could be my second-cousin is if we are of the same generation.
By generation, of course, I mean that we are in the same location in line of descendants ... our branches fall at the same level on a family tree. This has nothing to do with age.
So, what is my relationship with my mom's first-cousin? She and I are not of the same generation; I am, actually, one generation "removed" from that relationship. This makes us "first-cousins (based on her relationship with my mother), once-removed." My daughter would be her first-cousin, twice removed. Likewise, if my second-cousin (the child of my mom's first cousin) had a kid, that child would be my "second-cousin, one removed."
Confused yet? Maybe it doesn't matter, but I think it's kind of a neat distinction.