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From A to Z: Using Dictionaries in Genealogical Research

by Kory L. Meyerink, AG
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What Was That Word Again?
Genealogy is a field with many archaic terms and words from foreign languages. Dictionaries can help you make sense of the records you find, and give you a deeper understanding of events. Kory Meyerink explains the advantages and applications of various types of dictionaries.

"D" is for dictionaries. What else would you expect in a discussion of genealogy "From A to Z?" But that really begs this question: Why use dictionaries in genealogy? After all, isn't genealogy just a collection of personal or geographic names and dates, most of which really don't appear in most dictionaries?

Well, of course I shouldn't be too facetious [characterized by levity] about researchers needing dictionaries. After all, each of us has probably had our share of research conundrums [intricate and difficult problems] caused by misunderstanding the verbiage [wordiness] of a testament [will] or land deed. Or, perhaps the period-specific connotation [implication] of a phrase in the deposition of a litigant [one engaged in a lawsuit] has tempted us to "throw over" [forsake, reject] our research.

Now, I could have written that last paragraph using more common words; I should have if I wanted a broad audience to understand my ideas. When I write with uncommon words, you as the reader could simply say, "I don't need to read this stuff if the author doesn't want to write with greater clarity." However, when dealing with the documents that describe our ancestors, we can't simply walk away from something that's difficult to read.

Defining Dictionaries

Stop. Before we get any further, we had better define the kind of dictionaries under discussion. "Dictionary" actually defines the format of a work, not necessarily the content. It is one which presents its subjects in alphabetical order. In genealogy we use many kinds of dictionaries, including geographic dictionaries (often called gazetteers), nominal dictionaries (lists of proper names, often with variants and/or meanings) and genealogical compendia, often called dictionaries, which discuss numerous families, in alphabetical order. All of those are proper topics for lengthy discussion, but here, I want to focus on dictionaries which define words.

Even within the narrow scope of language dictionaries, there are many subsets, several of which have bearing on our genealogical research. These include standard (also called desktop or abridged), unabridged, specialized, historical, slang, and foreign language dictionaries.

This article can only identify one or two examples of each of these different kinds. Your local library will have an excellent collection, although some obscure dictionaries may only appear in research libraries, including academic libraries.

This is the typical, desktop dictionary that most people have in their homes, and generally includes between 150,000 and 200,000 words. It works reasonably well for many uses, even in genealogy, but remember — the more recent the publication date, the more older, obscure words have been eliminated, so new words can be added. Because of the selection process and the creation of new editions, these are called abridged dictionaries. Be certain that your desktop dictionary includes information on the etymology (history and development) of the entries, as well as dates of first usage. Some of the smaller, less-expensive "standard" dictionaries omit this crucial information.

For a more comprehensive treatment of the definitions and history of words, as well as coverage of two to three times as many words, turn to an unabridged dictionary. Here you will find examples of how words were used at different times, as well as changed meanings. My 1928 unabridged dictionary reminds us that cousin also carries the legal meaning of any "next of kin, whether collaterally or lineally related."

The most important of unabridged dictionaries is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) published at Oxford, England in 12 volumes through 1978, with five supplements through 1986. Often considered the "Granddaddy" of dictionaries, it includes extensive examples of changing word usage and detailed etymologies for virtually every word.

A similar work, designed specifically for America, is the four-volume work, A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1968), compiled at the University of Chicago under the editorship of William A. Craigie and James R. Hulbert.

Every field of knowledge has its own specialized vocabulary, so specialized dictionaries exist to fit almost every need. The same is true in genealogy. Over the past decade, some specific genealogical dictionaries have appeared which can help you understand terminology often not found in regular dictionaries. Perhaps the most popular and thorough is Barbara Jean Evans' A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists & Historians, 3d ed. (Alexandria, Va.: Hearthside Press, 1995). Here family historians can learn about obscure terms, such as the "O, Grab Me Laws," a derisive term for the Embargo Act. One will also find several definitions for the "Ohio Company," as the term was used in different places and times with different meanings.

Several other genealogical dictionaries and word lists are available, even on the Internet. You can find several links on Cyndi's List. The newest special dictionary for genealogists is Kip Sperry's Abbreviations and Acronyms: A Guide for Family Historians (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 2000). As the title indicates, this volume does not define terms, rather it provides meaning to the shorthand found within our field.

Family historians also use a variety of specialized dictionaries designed for other fields of study, notably history, or regional studies. John T. Schlebecker compiled The Many Names of Country People: An Historical Dictionary From the 12th Century Onward (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989) to focus on the variety of terms used to refer to "country people, exalted or humble, who till the soil, keep the forests, manage the livestock," etc. Surprisingly detailed, despite its specific focus, the 325 pages include lengthy definitions, including the best description of "Redemptioner" I have found, at least in its more common usage. He is one who

"Agrees to work for another, . . . in return for payment of passage to America. Typically sells his/her services to a ship master who in turn sells the indenture to another person in America. Usually, but not invariably, the Redemptioner agrees to work for at least seven years for another. Is usually, but not always, from one of the German states. Does any sort of work, but is usually a farmworker. Not quite, but almost a chattel Slave. May be sold to others . . . . See: INDENTURED SERVANT."

A regional approach is Wilfred Blevins, Dictionary of the American West (New York: Facts on File, 1993) who found that the terms used in the American West were poorly understood by editors and others outside the region. Imagine running across the word "fusil" in an estate inventory. Both my desktop and unabridged dictionaries define it as"a light flintlock musket." However, from Blevins we learn that it is

"A muzzle-loading musket of the type the Hudson's Bay Company and Northwest Fur Company traded to the Indians; a trade musket. It generally was not a weapon of high quality. The term is borrowed from the French."

With this much more expansive definition, you can see the possible research clues (depending on time and place) that this dictionary offers.

Another specialized area of knowledge is the law, and most family historians are very weak in their understanding of legal terminology. Therefore, many of us turn to Black's Law Dictionary: Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern by Henry Campbell Black (6th ed., St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1990). This source provides researchers detailed definitions of the sometimes obscure terms found in a variety of court and other legal documents, even those of earlier times.

The documents we read were often created long ago in history, and many words have disappeared, or their meanings have changed. In these cases, you can turn to old editions of standard dictionaries. Noah Webster issued his first dictionary in 1806, and it is available in reprint and on CD-ROM. Genealogical dictionaries also can be helpful, as well as unabridged dictionaries. However, even better are dictionaries designed for modern users. One that I often prefer to consult is Colonial American English, a Glossary: Words and Phrases Found in Colonial Writing, Now Archaic, Obscure, Obsolete, or Whose Meanings Have Changed by Richard M. Lederer, Jr. (Essex, Conn.: Verbatim Book, 1985).

We often think of slang as being modern or current English, but slang has been a part of English for hundreds of years. Slang dictionaries, while primarily a feature of the 20th century can still provide important insights to uncommon meanings of common words. One popular, and relatively thorough source is The American Thesaurus of Slang: A Complete Reference Book of Colloquial Speech by Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark (2nd ed., New York: Thomas &. Crowell Co., 1953, 1962). Many others are available at your local library. Most still include words that came into vogue even one hundred years ago.

English may be the commonly accepted language in North America today, but it is not the only language used, even in official documents. Historically, Latin, Dutch, German, and of course French appear in genealogical documents. Of course, as a nation of immigrants, many of our ancestors came from countries where they did not speak English. In such situations, you can turn to dictionaries which provide English translations of foreign terms. General foreign language dictionaries, such as German-English or French-English dictionaries, are in most every library.

One foreign language dictionary that is most useful for family historians is Ernest Thode's German-English Genealogical Dictionary (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992). This source focuses on words, phrases and symbols found in German genealogical documents, making it of even greater use than typical German-English dictionaries.

At times in your research you may need to use a combination of dictionaries to better understand the term or phrase you are seeking. Recently I was asked to translate a letter from German to English, but the content dealt with a relative's experiences in South Africa in the early 1900s. Naturally I often turned to my German-English dictionaries to be certain I had the right meaning for certain words (kinds of crops or insects, for example) I was less familiar with. One term stumped me. The German word simply translated to Kaffir, but I did not know what that was.

Turning to my unabridged (1928) New International Dictionary of the English Language, I learned that it referred to certain members of the Bantu race in South Africa. However, it took yet a different dictionary to learn that the term, as used at that time period by a white resident of South Africa, was generally derisive in nature.

Now, here's a brief test. Go back and take note of the words or phrases immediately followed by their definitions in [brackets]. Did you really know the meaning of all of those words? If not, then you have already been reminded of the need for dictionaries, despite your own level of erudition [extensive knowledge, chiefly from books].

The definitions come from Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1983). For a fuller discussion of dictionaries in genealogy, see Martha Henderson's chapter in Printed Sources (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998), "General Reference."

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How-To Article: But I Don't Speak the Language
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Step-by-Step Guide: Genealogy Glossary

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