leveret, levirate

A few of us were lounging around in Domus Logogustationis (the local headquarters of the Order of Logogustation), mostly reading, occasionally exchanging comments on various words.

Elisa Lively looked up from her book. “What’s a levirate?”

“A leveret?” said Maury, barely glancing up from his magazine. “A young hare.” He returned to his reading.

“Oh, thanks,” Elisa said. Pause while she looked back at her book. “Huh.” Another pause. “Huh.” She looked up again. “Because this book uses the term all the time but doesn’t define it. But that doesn’t really clear things up all that much. Young hair.”

“No?” Maury looked over the top of his magazine and peered over at Elisa’s book, but the title of it was not visible at his angle. “There are some other senses based on that, though they are not really in current use.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, a spiritless person. Or a mistress.”

“Oh. That must be what it is. Hm.” Another pause. “So a levirate is a mistress because of the link between hair and tresses?”

“Hair and…” Maury was fleetingly confused, and then realized the confusion, or at least part of it. “Hare as in like a rabbit. H-a-r-e.”

“But… so… OK. I thought maybe it was some kind of game or an instrument or something. But I can see some relation to keeping a mistress.”

“Well, rabbits are a kind of game. As are hares. You can hunt them.”

“But can you practise them?”

“Can you what?”

“I guess when they say practise the levirate they mean they’re in the practice of keeping mistresses. I mean, I don’t see where little animals really come into this.”

“What are you reading?” Maury was straining forward in his seat trying to see the book. “I take it it’s not lagomorphology.” Elisa opened her mouth to ask a question, which Maury anticipated. “The study of rabbits, hares, and pikas, and such like.”

“Oooh, I love pikas!” Elisa said. “But no, it’s anthropology. They’re talking about some cultures in New Guinea.”

“They have hares there?”

“Well, the thing is, I thought maybe they were more interested in heirs. Because they’ve been talking about marital customs and widows and…”

Maury, finally cluing in, cut her off. “Lee-virate! That,” he said, holding his finger in the air, “is what you want.”

“Leave her at that? What, as a widow? She gets a hare for an heir? Or they want to get her out of their hair? Or does she become someone’s mistress?”

“No, it’s a different word,” Maury said. “I thought you said leveret, l-e-v-e-r-e-t. Which is a small hare. It comes from Old French, and ultimately from Latin lepus, ‘hare’. But you mean levirate” – here he pronounced the first syllable as “lee” again – “which comes from Latin levir, ‘husband’s brother’.”

“So I was saying it wrong?”

“No,” Maury said, “the way you were saying is also acceptable. But ambiguous.”

“So neither word has to do with Levites or French lips,” Elisa said. (French for “lips” is lèvres.) “Or lovers. But I’m still confused. They practise the brother-in-law?”

“A widow marries her husband’s brother. This is actually in Mosaic law, in Deuteronomy: if a man dies before his wife has a child, she has to marry the man’s brother to have a child with him. But there is an escape clause: they can renounce the right to marry and the woman is free to marry someone else. Obviously the latter is the norm today, where that law is observed at all. It alleviates the lover-and-levirate problem.”

“It’s like the brother is the reliever,” Elisa said. “So these people in New Guinea are Jewish? Talk about lost tribes.”

“No. Other cultures also do it.”

Elisa sounded out the word silently. “It’s a nice word, anyway. Even if a bit pretentious to use it without defining it.”

“It’s a lovely word, I’m sure,” Maury said. “C’est la vérité. At least as long as it’s more about love than leverage.”

“I wonder what the ceremony would be…” Elisa said, canting her eyes up toward the ceiling in thought. “‘I hare-by take you, Elvira, as my in-law-fully wedded wife.’” She tittered.

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