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Words to the Wise

By Daniel Hubbard | May 5, 2013

Words. They are the smallest unit of meaning. The documents we study, the stories we are told are built up of those units. Little bits of meaning are added to each other until some information is conveyed. To understand that information we need to understand the basic ingredients. Do we always know what those ingredients mean?


Foreign words are almost strange by definition. To a Frenchman, foreign words are étrange, related to the English word “strange.” To a German, they are ausländisch, related to the English word “outlandish,” i.e. from outside the country. The English word “foreign” simply means outdoors. Apparently in English you don’t need to be from very far away to be exotic, or perhaps this explains the outlandish things my children do in the backyard…

Obviously, if you encounter a document written in a foreign language you will be dealing with foreign words. Equally obviously, a bilingual dictionary is needed if you don’t know the language. Sometimes, depending on the zeitgeist, foreign words get thrown into documents. They might seem somehow familiar and give the reader a sense of deja vu without really being understood. That can present a problem. If you are reading a Polish document, there is no need to wonder about the language of the words. If you are reading a document in English and encounter a word that is definitely not English, your first task is to figure out what language is the source of the word. Even worse, if the handwriting is difficult, it might not be obvious at first that some of your problem is a word or two in a totally different language from the one you thought you were trying to decipher. Some of the most difficult Swedish I’ve ever read has turned out to be poorly written Latin.


Different specialties have different vocabularies. Many of the documents used in genealogy were created for legal reasons. Not surprisingly, legal terms crop up in those documents. Those terms often come from Latin (see above) or are terms that seem familiar yet turn out to have specific legal meanings that are not particularly close to the meaning that seems obvious. A law dictionary like Black’s might be necessary to understand what was meant.

Animal, Vegetable  or Mineral

Words with geological and botanical meanings often occur in one specific type of document encountered by genealogists—land records using metes and bounds. The “metes,” the points used to specify the edges of the land being described, are usually either vegetable or mineral. You might not be familiar with the precise words used but they could tell you something about your ancestor’s land. Guides to rocks and trees and come in handy to tell you the meanings of those words.

Person, Place or Thing

People’s names often have meanings as part of their origins but those are not particularly useful for genealogy. Guessing that some Medieval ancestor was a blacksmith based on a more recent ancestor’s surname doesn’t really win you that much. On the other hand, meanings based on use can come in handy. In America someone who appears in the records as Benjamin Franklin Jones is probably not hiding clues to his ancestry in his given names. People are occasionally named for more obscure figures, now unknown. A series of first and middle names in my own ancestry may contain clues to a mystery. Checking those names led me to the conclusion that at least one is probably not hiding a clue to anything other than the fact that at the time William Eaton was a famous soldier.

Place names are frequently a source of problems. A gazetteer might just give you the meaning of that mysterious place name.

Things would seem to be easily handled by dictionaries but there is one type of “thing” that that gives problems. If you look up the words you will never find the right meaning. Those words make up an idiom. Sometimes those words in an old letter that you aren’t even sure you are reading correctly, that don’t seem to make sense no matter how you slice and dice them, go together to form an idiom and the words carry no meaning on their own.

Time and Place

Words mean different things at different times. Some words mean one thing to us and something quite different to the long-ago person who wrote them down. I decided to  write this post after hearing people’s amusement during a recent talk when a marriage record listed the bride as a nineteen-year-old spinster. When that record was made spinster was the female equivalent of bachelor, it simply meant that she had not been previously married. I wonder how many people have concluded that a female ancestor married late in life simply because she was listed as a spinster in a marriage record.

Place affects the meaning of words as well. Researching some letters written in upstate New York in the nineteenth century, I was puzzled by the constant references to shillings. This was long after Americans stopped using pounds, shillings and pence and replaced them with dollars an cents. A dictionary from 1850 informed me that shilling was still used in some parts of New York State and that it meant 1/8 of a dollar. That wasn’t a unit of currency that one could pull from one’s pocket but it was the way that people in that time and place thought of the value of things. Finding a dictionary from the right time that mentioned that place made it all clear.

Words come and go with time. They change meaning with time. Their set of meanings changes. You can think you understand a word only because it is still in use, still makes sense in context and might even have had the meaning you are thinking of as a possible meaning when it was written but what was meant was another meaning, a meaning that it no longer has. That can happen with dictionaries as well. Just because you find a word in a modern dictionary, doesn’t mean that the word has that meaning in the distinctly unmodern document you are studying. A dictionary, like the Oxford English Dictionary, that lists archaic words and definitions might be a much bigger help than a standard dictionary. A dictionary from as close as possible to the time the document was written might be an even bigger help. The closer the dictionary that you use is to the right time, right place and right specialty all at the same time, the better.


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