What is that Word? Understanding Genealogical Vocabulary

Posted by Aaron on

Deciphering your family history is a task that can be challenging enough by itself without being tripped up by somepesky vocabulary. It’s incredible how many ways language can get you temporarily stumped when you are doing genealogy work.

But then again perhaps it’s not so incredible. Genealogy (the study of one’s ancestry), like any field or discipline, has a lot of vocabulary specific to it! So, if you’ve found yourself momentarily confused, you’re not alone.

There are obviously far more terms than we can discuss here… I tend to wax on but it would be a lot even for me! For the purposes of this blog, we’ll look at select examples along with resources to help you if you get stuck.

People and Relationships

Here are some words you’ll want to have a handle on from the start when researching your ancestors (or, relatives you descend from directly). While ancestors include your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, your collateral relatives are your aunts, uncles, cousins and even siblings. Simply put, they are blood relatives from whom you did not directly descend. However, you and your cousins may be part of the same generation. A generation, in genealogy, includes all offspring who are at the same stage of descent from a common ancestor.

I learned about collateral relatives from www.familytreemagazine.com. Their website offers a comprehensive genealogy glossary. You can find that and other glossaries by typing “glossary” into the search box on their home page. You will see a Will & Probate glossary and glossaries of terms in other languages like Spanish, German, and Czech. There is also a “glossary of women’s words”, including terms like relict (a widow) and testatrix (a woman who leaves a valid will). Of course, I’d encourage you to finish reading my blog before you head over there!

A great book for understanding familial relationships is Kinship: It’s All Relative by Jackie Smith Arnold. A chart of consanguinity (blood relationships), such as the one featured in this book, is a great tool when you are trying to visualize what makes Frank your third cousin twice removed. The book explains how relatives become “removed”, among other things. Unfortunately, it does not cover the type of removal process you might be hoping for with some of your more involved family members!

Written Resources

Let’s talk about written resources. If you’re like me, you probably get excited about finding primary source documents, or those created at the time of an event, like birth certificates. Birth certificates are also what is termed a vital record, as are records of marriage and death. Did you know that the federal mortality schedule records deaths that occurred in the year preceding a census? I didn’t know, either! If you saw the term cemetery records, you could probably guess that these would have the names and death dates of people buried in a particular cemetery, as well as grave site locations. But if you saw that there was a gazetteer available for an area, you might not know that it is a geographical reference with alphabetical listings of towns and locations and information on geographical features. Useful data, to be sure, if you know when you’ve found it! There are gazetteers available online through ancestrylibrary.com, accessible via the library’s internet computers.

Rivaled only by the apparent national confusion over the correct usages of you’re and your, emigration and immigration can be a tricky pair. An emigrant is a person leaving one country to reside in another country. Emigration is the act of doing so. An immigrant is a person moving into a country from another country. Immigration is the act of doing so. It would be an easy mistake to mix up these terms but, fear not, because you can go to www.genealogy.com and scroll down on their home page to where it says “browse articles”. Under that, you will find a link to their genealogy glossary.

When conducting your genealogical research, you may come across Latin terms, unfamiliar abbreviations, and archaic names for everyday items. I want to leave you with some genealogical dictionaries we have at the library for instances such as these.

A to Zax by Barbara Jean Evans is a comprehensive dictionary including medical, geographical, and legal terms and even nicknames. The author also includes a list of Dutch given names, which may come in handy for specific research!

We also have volumes one and two of What Did They Mean by That? by Paul Drake, in which you can find terminology relating to occupations, furniture, foods and “everyday” expressions. Both these references and A to Zax listed above contain some of the genealogical Latin vocabulary you may need help deciphering.

You might also get some answers from Abbreviations & Acronyms: A Guide for Family Historians by Kip Sperry. This book offers a detailed list of meanings and explanations for abbreviations, alphabetic symbols, initials and more. I think this book is fascinating, as I look through the abbreviations, many of which I could never even have guessed the meaning. Some abbreviations have multiple meanings, so context could be a big clue in figuring out which meaning applies.

So, while you’re conducting your genealogical research, keep in mind that the library has these resources available to help you along your way. If we don’t know what that strange word is you’ve come across, we can certainly help you find out!

~ Amanda, reference librarian, Warrenton central library

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