By Daniel Hubbard | July 7, 2013
From a recent exchange started by an intentionally amusing comment from a client- “In genealogy we’re supposed to go backward to move things forward, so is backward actually forward or is backward still backward even though it takes things forward?” Somehow that reminded me of “Who’s on first?” at least in the level of potential confusion and it is baseball season after all. So, as a reminder that communicating family history is not always straight-forward and with apologies to Abbott and Costello—
Costello: “Do you know your family history?”
Costello: “Ok, great! Who’s your father’s father?”
Abbott: “That’s right!”
Costello: “What’s right?”
Abbott: “Who’s my grandfather.”
Costello: “That’s what I’m asking you.”
Abbott: “That’s why I’m telling you who is my grandfather.”
Costello: “Ok, when your dad was a little kid and his mother was sick…”
Abbott: “That’s true! His mother was born sick!”
Costello: “What are you talking about?”
Abbott: “His mother.”
Costello: “Who’s mother was sick?”
Abbott: “No, who’s wife was sick. Who’s mother was dying.”
Costello: “Who’s dying?”
Abbott: “No she was his mother.”
Costello: “Let’s try this again. When your dad was little and his mother was sick…”
Abbott: “Yes, that’s right.”
Costello: “Stop interrupting me. So, his mother was sick. Who was left to take care of him?”
Abbott: “Now I think you’ve understood it!”
Costello: “Understood what?”
Abbott: “No, he was my mother’s father.”
Costello: “Who was your mom’s father?”
Abbott: “No, who was my dad’s father.”
Costello: Let’s try this again. You check a census that lists your dad when he was a kid. Who was listed as the father?”
Abbott: “Yes, in every census.”
Costello: “And you say his wife was sick?”
Abbott: “Yes, but you can’t tell that from the census. You have to look at their marriage license.”
Costello: “Who’s license?”
Abbott: “Well, I’d say it was their license not just his, but she was sick on it.”
Costello: “Oh no, she must have been a very nervous bride.”
Abbott: “Why do you say that.”
Costello: “Well, she was sick on it.”
Abbott: “Yes, she was but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
Costello: “One more try. You check your dad’s birth certificate. Somebody was the father.”
Abbott: “Now you’ve switched to my mother’s side of the family again.”
Abbott: “I’ve told you, he was my mom’s father. Somebody was his wife.”
Costello: “Well, I should hope somebody was his wife.”
Abbott: Now you’re making sense.
Costello: “Look, let’s try to get something straight. Did your father have brothers and sisters?”
Abbott: “Yes and no.”
Costello: “Did he or not?”
Abbott: “Yes and no!”
Costello: “If I asked your father’s father about his children, he would talk about your dad. Would he talk about another son?
Costello: “Good, would he talk about a daughter?”
Costello: “Wonderful! And these were whose children?”
Abbott: “Now you’ve figured it out!”
Costello: “So I go back in time to when your dad was a kid. It’s the Fourth of July. The whole family has gathered. I knock on the door. Who answers?”
Costello: “I walk into the kitchen to check on the meal. In the kitchen would be?”
Abbott: “Somebody, sick and dying.”
Costello: “That’s terrible!”
Abbott: “No they were great cooks.”
Costello: “Ok… I walk onto the screen porch. I see what? Who is at the watermelon? A child is on the floor playing. Yes or No? The meal is brought out of the kitchen by somebody, sick and dying.”
Abbott: “Now I think you see it!”
Costello: “I don’t see. I’m totally lost!”
Costello: “I said, I don’t see I’m totally lost!”
Abbott: “Oh, wouldn’t have been there. He could never get anywhere on time.”Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | June 30, 2013
I never thought that I would ever use the heraldic visitations. Heraldry has that sort of “gravitational” attraction that always makes me somewhat uneasy. People have been known to make up heraldic arms for profit. Some think that there are “family coats of arms” and that everyone has one. People claim or are misled to believe connections on the flimsiest of grounds all because of that powerful gravity of those medieval designs.
Some English research I am still working on led to a will that named an uncle and a nephew. They were tempting clues that might allow going one step further back than I could otherwise. They turned out to appear as father and son in a visitation. If the pedigree reported to the herald can be trusted, it gave me two more generations. That, I think is the most exciting part. It isn’t the arms that did not descend down the branch that I was working on anyway. It was finding those two men in the visitation in a way that, once I verify some information, may get me back farther than I had the right to expect. That is what was important and exciting about using that visitation, it may well expand my understanding of the family.
So what were heraldic visitations? By the time of Henry VIII the use of arms had become widespread. Too widespread. Heraldic arms were not something that just anyone could use and certainly not by creating the arms themselves but people seemed to be elevating themselves into the gentry in that way. The solution was something of a blending of an inquisition and a census. Those who carried out the visitation were empowered to demand to see the heraldic arms of anyone claiming them and to demand proof of their right to the arms. If the proof was lacking, the herald was instructed
to put down or otherwise deface at his discretion… in plate, jewels, paper, parchment, windows, gravestones and monuments or elsewhere whereseoever they may be set or placed.
If that inquisitorial phase was passed, the census-like phase began. If the proof was felt to be sufficient, the arms and the proof were recorded as well as the pedigree of those whose right had been confirmed.
Visitations of different areas of England continued until the reign of William & Mary began in 1688.
The 1664 visitation of Lancaster was carried out by Sir William Dugdale and the edition printed in the nineteenth century contains a long biography of him in the introduction. On the first page it said he
was not descended from one of our great families of whom it may be said with truth that they lose themselves in the ages which are past, but who are still remembered in deeds that will not die.
I have mixed feelings about that quote but I find parts of it quite beautiful. As we research back through the generations we do find that families “lose themselves in the ages which are past.” They eventually fade back into that fog of records not kept or not preserved, documents not known or not understood. We try to blow away that fog but there will always be a point when those “ages that are past” don’t let us see farther. We also try to remember or uncover and then preserve those “deeds that will not die.”
On the other hand, I find the entire quotation to be a bit disturbing. Sir William “was not descended from one of our great families of whom” the rest of the quote applies. That certainly goes for my ancestors as well and probably also for yours but I find it to be wrong. Every family stretches back to to ages which are past and as for those “deeds that will not die” that is for us, the descendants to decide. They aren’t restricted to the cream of the noble crop of which even our Sir William was not a member. Perhaps we do genealogical research in part to elevate at least some of our ancestors into our own personal nobility.
Maybe that is why I never imagined I would use the visitations. They claim to record the nobility and yet they record so little of it.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | June 23, 2013
The famous biologist Edward O. Wilson has written that,
“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.”
That is research in a nutshell.
A poet asks the big questions and looks for the big patterns.
- What if this isn’t him in these records?
- What if they married in America not Ireland?
- What if a birth record doesn’t match the death record made not long after? (one I’ve run across)
- What if he died while traveling? (my great-great-grandfather’s death notice was found in a Brooklyn newspaper—Brooklyn is about 1000 miles from where he lived but he died there.)
- What might it mean that a five-year-old is listed as head of household? (another one I’ve run across)
The poet sees the subject from different angles. When starting out with a problem that is not straightforward the imagination needs to run free over the possibilities and weave together creative hypotheses. Thoughts can push at the envelope that confines them. Questions can arise. These thoughts and hypotheses don’t all need to be correct. If one is correct you reach your goal. They don’t need to prove to be sensible. Twenty crazy thoughts, might include two worth pursuing and one that proves to be miraculous rather than fatuous.
You might use your imagination to weed out the impossible ideas, and deemphasize the unlikely but hard problems are often hard because the answers were not likely or the paths to them are faint and winding.
It is time to ask the what-ifs and wonder if a clue might be found in some unexpected place or if many tiny constraints might be combined to point the way.
Once the research starts, the researcher needs to become an accountant.
- What is the data? I’ll record that.
- Where did the data originate? I’ll record that.
- What does the new data mean in combination with the old? I’ll record that.
- Where does this data imply I should look next? I’ll record that.
- Where did I look and not find anything? I’ll record that.
Once the accountant has enough written down, it might be time for the poet to return or the accountant in you might solve the problem on the first try.
By Daniel Hubbard | June 16, 2013
After a long day of triangulating families in Griffith’s Valuation, I needed a break and managed to take my first somewhat long bike ride of the year. I took a route that I have taken many times before. The deep forest and the slow-flowing river give a sense of timeless permanence. They were there like they have been for centuries and like they will be until long after I am gone. When you stop to ponder for a moment in such a place, I think the only possible feeling is awe.
Even amidst all changelessness, some of the most wonderful sights were the ones that were transient—a meadow dancing with purple flowers mixed with the golden heads of prairie grass that the setting sun hit just right, a snapping turtle that had left the river to catch a patch of evening sun upon the path, a young buck and a doe keeping each other company at the edge of the forest.
Perhaps it is that transience in permanence that makes the magic. That meadow wasn’t quite the same a few moments later, the snapper lost the sun and headed back to the deep of the river, the buck and the doe investigated me but then headed off together back among the trees. Lasting and fleeting together.
Back home, I waded back into the unchanging permanence of tithe applotments and parish registers, name after name, place after place, recorded, captured and timeless. Then a discovery, a transient realization, a sudden glimpse of a new connection hidden among the unchanging permanence of names and places. Magic.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | June 10, 2013
The other night my daughter borrowed the movie Angels & Demons and wanted to watch it with me. Part of the plot hinges on the theft of a container of antimatter from CERN, the particle physics laboratory outside Geneva, Switzerland. I think she wanted to get my reaction to the physics.
Antimatter is in some ways just like ordinary matter and in some ways it is matter’s complete opposite. A positron (antielectron) has the same mass as an electron. They have the same amount of electric charge but whereas an electron’s charge is negative a positron’s charge is positive. Matter and antimatter have many of the same properties yet many properties are completely contrary. When a particle and its antiparticle meet, they annihilate leaving nothing but energy behind. The original particle and antiparticle are gone.
Physicists do actually work with antimatter. It really is something that is sought out, made and used. What your genealogy may need is for you to seek out and use some antidocuments.
Antimatter annihilates matter. Antidocuments annihilate your documents. Just like physicists who work with antimatter. Genealogists need to seek out and work with antidocuments. Let them annihilate what you thought you knew.
I have a death record for a man that tells me who his father is. I have his marriage record that lists his father as a witness. I have his children’s baptismal records that show his siblings and his wife’s siblings as godparents. I have his baptismal record from half a world away that identifies his parents. He came to America and I found him living in his father’s household in 1870. I found him married and living with his wife and children in 1880. I also looked for the father in 1880 and found him living next door to his son with a different wife. I’d found an antidocument. There were two men of that name, born in the same month in the same country to fathers of the same name. They came to the same city.
The second antidocument that I encountered was a second death record that showed that the two men died a few blocks from each other and within a few months of each other. It almost seemed that they had literally annihilated each other. I had found a man that fit the description of the man that I was after. Like some sort of antimatter, he has many properties that are the same as the man I am seeking but he annihilated the idea that I had found the correct father.
There must have been some connection between these two men, just like there are theoretical connections between particles and antiparticles. The siblings of one did not end up as godparents to the children of the other by accident but the family connections are not what they at first had seemed and I have the a few antidocuments to thank for that realization.
Sources of Antidocuments
Physicists need a source of antiparticles. At CERN we used a machine called the antiproton accumulator. You will also need sources of antidocuments.
One way to find antidocuments is to investigate people who seem to be associated with your person. Learning those relationships can annihilate your hypothesis and get you closer to the truth. You can think of those people as “auntymatter.” Then there are all the people with similar names and biographies that can be pondered. Of course, there is always the tried-and-true method of examining every document you can concerning the person you’re investigating. If for example you discover that an obscure record implies that he or she died younger than your hypothesis allows, you’ve found an antidocument.
So how was the physics?
As a physicist who spent almost a decade at CERN, I can say that the physics in Angels & Demons was fine for moving a plot along but not for anything else. When I was a grad student the local newspaper, La Tribune de Geneve, ran a paranoid sounding letter to the editor claiming that CERN was producing antimatter for military purposes, i.e. blowing things up. (I’ve often wondered if that was somehow the seed for the book and the movie.) We thought that this was hilarious and one night on shift at the experiment (which used a beam of antimatter) we calculated how long it would take the CERN antiproton accumulator to accumulate 1 gram of antimatter (for comparison, a U.S. nickel weighs 5 grams). I don’t remember if the answer was three or four times the current age of the universe but the difference between 40 and 54 billion years of continuous, flawless operation are not that big when it comes to thinking about the practicality of the whole thing. Then of course, the antimatter produced needs to be held impossibly well because even the smallest mistake means losing it all.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | June 2, 2013
(continued from Call me Ishmael)
Names almost automatically preserve information about ethnicity. A given name might be used in many countries but its precise form might be unique to an ethnic group. Surnames often have very local origins or are dependent on the language spoken by the people who created them. A “Smith” is probably of English origin. A “Schmidt” descends from a German-speaker who did the same kind of work.
Some names even tell the listener or reader what land a person owned. In Scandinavia and parts of Germany a man’s name might be just a given name followed by the name of his farm. If he changed farms, he changed names.
A name can also convey a sense of formality or familiarity. Daniel is more formal than Dan or Danny. The name Danny even hints that the person is a child.
Honorifics like “Mr.,” “Dr.,” or “Goodwife,” in the sense that they help to identify a person, can be thought of as part of their name. In colonial America “Mr. James Smith” is quite possibly a different person from “James Smith.” Not every man had the standing to be referred to using “Mr.” The man who had that standing in one document may be a different person from the man who was not referred to that way in a different document.
In some cultures a person might change names to reflect a change in status. A Swedish man who was ordained into the ministry might form a new name using Latin or Greek, two languages that represented his advanced learning. Doing that signaled his status. If his family lost that status, they lost that name.
Occupation or position might also be a virtual part of someone’s name. High status posts might always be prepended to someone’s name. Alderman John Doe was probably not the same person as John Doe the rag collector. A position such as deacon might be used to discriminate between two individuals of the same name or simply to tell the world what his status was.
In Roman times a person’s name included a nomen gentile that identified the clan to which they belonged. The clan consisted of descendants of a common ancestor. Beyond a given name and the nomen gentile, a Roman might have a cognomen, which added a bit of description to the name. Sometimes this was a bit of a joke. Julius Caesar was famously balding but his cognomen, Caesar means “curly haired.” Later these became inherited surnames, so a Roman man had both a clan name and a surname that he would share with his father but not with all members of his clan.
Rules for names aren’t part the names themselves but they are something to consider. A man named Anderson in America probably had a father by the name of Anderson. A man named Andersson in Scandinavia probably had a father with the given name Anders.
A German girl with the same name as her sister implies that they were named for the same saint and you need to learn their “call names” to tell one from the other. An English girl with the same given name as her older sister, implies that the older sister had died.
In colonial New England Goodman William Johnson and Mr. William Johnson were probably two different men.
Knowing the rules turns names into clues.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | May 26, 2013
I was just writing a short article about names in Sweden and it has gotten me thinking about the roles of names in general. What are our names for? That sounds like an easy question, doesn’t it? The most obvious role is as a sort of personal identity label. Names are the backbone of genealogy because they identify the individual. What other information do they contain? It seems they do other things as well. They send social signals, place a person within a larger context or directly tell us something about the person.
Names can contain many parts. Each adds different ingredients to the overall form and function of the name. What components go into a name are determined by culture and by law. In some times and places a patronymic was a must. Sometimes that and a given name was all one had. At other times and in other traditions, a surname might accompany the patronymic or replace it. A person’s name might include the name of their tribe, a significant event, a physical description, the names of ancestors, titles, honorifics; whatever that culture at that time needed to tell one person from another.
In some cultures names can remain fixed throughout life. In others they might change for certain special reasons. In others it is quite normal to be known by several names through out life. For all of these things, there are rules that govern the evolution of a person’s name.
A person’s full name, whatever the name’s component parts, is their identity label. Individual identity is the most important function of what we often call a “first name.” In many cultures it is not first, so a better term is “given name.” It is a name given to a child, usually by the parents, and it is the most personal part of a name. A child might have more than one given name and they might have some priority order. In the English speaking world, the first name is usually the one by which a person is known and the “middle name” is rarely used. In Sweden today, there is no fixed priority order and a person can pick any of their given names and use it without a legal name change.
In German records we can often find sibling after sibling with the same first name. That name was the name of a saint. It was the child’s spiritual name. Among males that saint’s name was very often Johan, making it nearly useless even outside the family. A whole village where every man and boy was called John would eventually have trouble functioning. The second name was the name by which the child was known. It was their rufnamen, their “call name.”
A person’s name can also describe them in some way. Many surnames originated with the description of an ancestor who is now lost in the distant past. That name might specify an occupation (Carpenter), a hair color (Brown), a place (Hill), stature (Small) or some other tidbit that described the person. Such names can come from more recent people in other cultures. When a Swede entered the army, he received a new and unique name. That name might describe him and might be used by his children. In those cultures it is possible to trace back to someone who you can tell was fast, clever or even annoying just from a name.
There is one piece of description that is so common in given names that it is easy to forget. Gender is often indicated by given name.
In places where patronymics were in use, the name might indicate whether the person who had it was the son or daughter of their father. In some cases a family name will end differently depending on whether or not the family member is male of female. Slavic names often behave this way. Latinized names can reflect gender as well. There are certainly other examples.
Genealogists and anyone who thinks about the term “family name” also realize that there can be another function to names as well. They can give some idea of family relationships. A child might inherit part of their name from their father, from their mother or from both. In societies with less strict naming rules, a person might choose to use a name that appears among their ancestors even if neither their father nor their mother used it.
Given names can also reflect ancestry. Children can be named for parents or grandparents, or even a more distant ancestor. Middle names can be an ancestral surname. Even a first name might be the mother’s maiden name, especially if she had no brothers to pass on the name to their progeny.
A patronymic will tell you the given name of a person’s father. Matronymics are rare but when you find one, it is telling you the given name of a person’s mother. Matronymics can occur in cases of illegitimacy or when the mother was of much higher status than the father.
There are a few cultures where parents are known by “teknonyms.” These are names that mean “father of…” of “mother of…” So parents are known by the names of their progeny. That might seem strange to us but as the father of three kids, I’m sure there are days when I am called so-and-so’s dad more often than I am called by my real name. Grade schools and Little League games seem to be the native habitat of teknonyms in modern America.
Women (and more rarely, men) who change surnames upon marriage or couples who take a combined surname, signal the relationship between them when they make that change.
Every time and place has its own rules and norms that govern these things. In Iceland today patronymics are required in almost all instances. From the patronymic one can determine if the person named is a son or a daughter. Thus name reflects gender.
There can be restrictions on the given names that are allowed simply because those are the names that the culture has used since time out of mind. Those names might always reflect gender. Johnny Cash’s song with the trick of naming a boy Sue to toughen him up might be impossible.
Does the concept of maiden name exist? If so, what happens to that name when a woman marries? Does it vanish from her name? Does it become a middle name? Does it become part of a combined surname? Is there a rule that requires one option over the others? Is there a spectrum of possibilities?
(to be continued)Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | May 19, 2013
Sometimes in genealogy, life gets in the way. Sad I know, but true. This will be a short post in honor of this week’s “living” a.k.a. flood recovery, a gas leak resulting in gutting the kitchen, two grade school band concerts, one little league practice, one soccer practice, one choir practice, one soccer game, four baseball games, a national honor society induction ceremony, a presentation (ok, that was actually genealogy), a birthday party for twins that are friends of my twins, finishing a book proof (ok, that was also genealogy but not the normal kind of activity)… a pediatrician visit… a session of Swedish school… Did I mention that we have friends we haven’t seen in a decade coming to visit from Europe in five days?…
I was watching my son’s little league team play. It was getting close to the time limit for the game and his team had been down by a lot and their comeback was great but falling short. The question was whether or not they could fit in one more inning. The decision was left up to the opposing team, the team that would win if they decided there was not time to fit in one more inning. The decision was made. Play one more. That leads to a question. What was the goal?
If the goal was to win, then it was a strange decision for a team with a lead to make. If the goal was to play the game, then it was not a strange decision at all. People usually want to win. Winning can be especially important, and losing especially hard to take, when you are ten years old but, of course you also want to play. Those two goals can be at odds with one another. The other team batted first and did not score but they were still up by 4 runs.
Research can have different goals too and they can be at odds with one another. Sometimes we research with a specific target in mind. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the best goal is to just see where things lead and enjoy the results.
Back at the Little League field, my son’s team went into their last at bats down 11 to 7. A few minutes later it was tied with the bases loaded. One more hit and they won 13 to 11. One team was ecstatic, the other not so much. What my son’s coach said to his team before they went out for the traditional friendly exchange of “nice game” with the other team was this. “Be extra respectful. They would have won if they had quit when they could have. Instead they wanted to play more.” That is what research should be like—keep going for the fun of it and be excited by wherever it leads you.
Now, you will have to excuse me. I need to check on the linoleum adhesive in the kitchen and then I’m off to Little League.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | May 12, 2013
A week or so ago and in a round-about way, I got a question about a memorial plaque found in the ceiling of an old house during renovation and it got me thinking about the things we find that tell a little story or present a little mystery about the the places where we live. Live in a place long enough and the stories and mysteries start to be part of your own past and archeology becomes genealogy.
When I was a child, I “helped” my next-door neighbor enlarge her garden. She also happened to be my aunt, so it was a bit of a family project. Just like the house where I lived, my grandfather had built hers but she thought that the things we found that day were older than her father. I don’t remember all of it but we did dig up some rotten leather straps, the remnants of some sort of harness was her guess. I got to keep a key. It was the old-fashioned kind with a metal loop at one end to take a keyring, a round shaft and a metal tab with teeth at the other that looked like a tattered flag blowing in the wind. It was the kind that a child associates with fairy tales and stories of castles and secret, locked passageways. It was so brown and pitted with corrosion that it looked like something carelessly whittled from a piece of wood. I already loved history and that key was my very own piece of history that I had dug from the ground myself. I kept it in my room for years. It always gave me the sense of the passing of time.
My aunt’s theory was that there had been a fence where we had dug. The land had once been part of a farm and nothing much had happened there between the time of the farm and the day my grandfather started to build our houses. Everything we took from the ground that day fell in a straight, very fence-like line. My aunt thought that they were the kinds of things that a farmer might have had, the kind of things a farmer might have left along a fence and lost or forgotten, so they built up there, a few things every so often falling down and sinking into the ground before anyone took notice. Until that is the day we dug them up, when they were no longer the things of every day life but the things of history. Those things and their context told us a little story that day and I became just a bit more hooked on history. I probably became a bit more hooked every time I looked at that key, hidden in my closet with my baseball cards and a broken arrowhead.
A year or two ago, when we renovated a few things in our basement, I found an old cabinet under the stairs. I knew it had been there but I was a bit surprised that it was still there. In the twenty plus years I had lived elsewhere many things had changed but apparently not that cabinet. It was also something that I remembered from childhood. Not because it was nice. It was a piece of junk by any standard except the does-the-door-close standard. In fact it was the door that had fascinated me as a kid. I never met my grandfather. He died long before I was born, but there was some of him on that cabinet door. It was covered in the kind of scribblings that a carpenter would make—triangles and squares with measurements written beside them, long strings of addition that were probably calculations of how much lumber a job would take, people’s names and phone numbers with far too few digits, or so they seemed to a kid who had never seen a phone number shorter than seven digits long. These numbers even had letters in them. They were clearly mysterious if you were young enough. When I looked at it again, I recognized some of the names. They were names that simply sounded like they came from my aunts’ and uncles’ stories about their childhood. They were names that belonged in a certain time and place.
This week, in order to replace a broken stove, we had to tear out the cabinets that my grandfather had built for the kitchen. The space where the flour bin had been when I was a kid had been repurposed into drawers but they were still the same cabinets and even if the stove hadn’t broken, those cabinets were well passed their prime. Behind them were two scraps of paper that had fallen down over the years. One was a survey that I should have turned in September of my freshman year of high school. The other was a receipt for a doctor visit that my mother had made at a time that makes me suspect that being pregnant with me was behind that appointment. It was somewhat odd to find that little scrap of evidence for my future existence.
Something my mother had told me that we would find was an old Formica countertop hidden under the oven. It was much lower than the other counters. Before my father installed the oven, and before I could remember, that spot had been my grandmother’s spot for kneading bread. My grandfather had built the cabinet and counter at just the right height to be easiest on her back. I could get a feeling for her stature just from looking at what had been built for her. It turns out that all my older cousins have memories of our grandmother standing there kneading away, but it was something I never knew.
When we lived in Sweden, I was always joking about the viking treasure that I claimed to be sure was buried in our yard. Sometimes the treasure is a rusty key, some jotted notes or an old receipt. Sometimes the family history is in a bit of cabinetry at a height that makes it mysterious, unless you know the secret.
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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