The language of genealogy

Over the last few months, any number of Vita Brevis posts have pointed out the frustrations of relying on public trees and trying to sort through the “dross of Internet information” that does little but “cause trouble for everyone else.” Those who try very hard to get it right, who quibble over trifles and worry about the minor details are, it seems to me, in the best sense of the word, genealogical pettifoggers.[1]

Accuracy does matter. Chronology matters. Details matter. In fact, the tiniest detail can be the clue that turns a theory on its head or knocks down a brick wall. Details, however minor (and one can certainly make the argument that there are no minor details in genealogy), can also bring a story alive. One recent example is research I was doing about a steamship that ran between Boston and Provincetown beginning in 1863. The name of the vessel was the George Shattuck, and while the identification of the vessel alone would have sufficed for my essay, how much more engaging is it to develop the story’s details, to add seasoning by noting that it was 325 tons, guaranteed to go 14 knots, cost $37,000 to be outfitted for sea, offered splendid accommodations for passengers, and that, at its launch party, ladies and gentlemen partook of a collation.

I believe that quibbling also matters, perhaps not for everything in life, but for many things genealogical. One can’t simply make stuff up because it suits a narrative, especially in this digital age when, to use a well-worn expression, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on. Studies have shown that a lie (or perhaps we should be kinder and call it misinformation) spreads significantly faster and more broadly than the truth. So, let the pettifogging begin and let the word itself, which apparently had its heyday around 1900 but has been losing popularity ever since, be restored to our vocabulary.

One can’t simply make stuff up because it suits a narrative…

Speaking of enhancing one’s vocabulary, I’ve begun to realize just how much the pursuit of genealogy has expanded my own vocabulary in an organic, spontaneous way. No doubt many of us owned a copy of 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, that little volume that promised personal and professional growth with an investment of a mere fifteen minutes a day. The very first page played on our deepest insecurities when, without mincing words, it noted that years of testing had determined “That if your vocabulary is limited your chances of success are limited.” Vocabulary is destiny and, so, for our future’s sake, we tried to get with and stay with the program, working our way through the thirty chapters. But how many of the words really stuck and, even if a few did, could we really employ and deploy them effectively and with aplomb? The rote learning of words – memorization based on repetition – seemed to disconnect those words from any context.

Genealogy puts words in context and encourages an active learning process. Like a kind of osmosis, as we immerse ourselves in our ancestors’ lives we absorb new words and terms – ahnentafel, haplogroup, soundex, GEDCOM, relict – that are assimilated immediately into our vocabulary in a kind of unconscious learning. Because those words and terms have important associations for us, we think about them and they stick with us. This “toolkit” becomes a portal to all sorts of other learning. If some of the words are arcane and archaic, most likely never again finding a place in modern conversation (except among genealogists), they nonetheless enhance our power to think, to decode the documents and worlds of our ancestors, adding “color” to their lives beyond the vital records.

One of the first word “problems” I encountered was on the 1920 census where my grandfather’s occupation was listed as a “heater boy” at a shipyard. Until welding was introduced to shipbuilding during World War II, the metal plates forming a ship’s hull were joined together by rivets. (A fascinating byproduct of my research was learning that the Titanic used three million rivets! Who knew?) A crew of five men (or boys) made up a rivet crew, the heater boy the first in the assembly line, charged with heating the rivet in a brazier and passing it in his tongs to the catcher.

A decade later, on the 1930 census, my grandfather’s occupation was listed as a chauffeur in the valve business. In the early years of the automobile industry, before electric ignition, when engines needed to be heated up, or “stoked,” the job fell to the chauffeur, a word from the French meaning “stoker,” whose responsibilities also included maintaining the vehicle. (My grandfather was a mechanic who eventually owned his own service station.) Later, the word evolved to mean the driver of vehicles.

My grandfather’s father, as well as his grandfather and great-grandfather, was a Morocco dresser, another term I was unfamiliar with but soon learned related to a specialized job in the leather industry, a thriving industry in Salem and Peabody beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Soft and pliable, Morocco is a goatskin leather (as opposed to cattle leather), named for the ancient Moroccan craft, and preferred for book bindings and luxury goods. The dresser was the tanner himself. An exploration of the occupation led me to read about the tanneries in Fez where leather is made using the same techniques as in medieval times.

My grandfather’s father … was a Morocco dresser…

I’ve tried to keep a running list of some of the words and terms I’ve learned through genealogy, many of which seem to relate to occupations – pound keeper and oiler – and to disease and medicine – puerperal fever and routine packs. On a death certificate, I encountered the abbreviation VS (Vulnus sclopetarium), a now obsolete term for gunshot wound, and in researching a shipwreck I encountered the word barratry, a maritime term meaning fraud or gross criminal negligence on the part of a ship’s captain or crew.

A 1907 social services report that I obtained for my grandfather’s family, in which a home visit was detailed, noted that “In the upper room was three beds or apologys,” the word apologys meaning a poor substitute, first used (per the OED) in 1754. In researching my Acadian ancestors, I learned the word aboiteau, a dike built for land reclamation, to prevent the overflow of water.

A few years ago, when I had the pleasure of travelling to England with Robert Charles Anderson, our group was challenged each morning with a Word of the Day, a couple of which, like Puritan and Separatist, were familiar; many others left us (me at least) stymied. And yet, because those words – adiaphora, soteriology, and ecclesiology – were learned in the context of our Mayflower ancestors, they were quickly assimilated into my vocabulary. Thanks to genealogy, we keep these words, and so many others, alive.

Journalist and literary editor Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) noted that “A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grow together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.”

In the last chapter of 30 Days…, the authors write that “In one sense you have finished this book. In another we hope that you have just begun.” Might we say the same for genealogy … that we’ve only just begun?


[1] Per Merriam-Webster. At the impeachment trial in the Senate in 2020, Chief Justice Roberts found it necessary to reprimand the parties on both sides, admonishing them – after a contentious debate over trial rules – to conduct themselves in a manner becoming of “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” He mentioned the 1905 impeachment trial of a Florida judge during which a senator’s behavior was found to be objectionable after he accused his opponent of pettifogging – in other words, paying too much attention to details that are minor or unimportant. The word can also suggest legal chicanery, but the Chief Justice’s exasperation was focused on the quibbling.

About Amy Whorf McGuiggan

Amy Whorf McGuiggan recently published Finding Emma: My Search For the Family My Grandfather Never Knew; she is also the author of My Provincetown: Memories of a Cape Cod Childhood; Christmas in New England; and Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song. Past projects have included curating, researching, and writing the exhibition Forgotten Port: Provincetown’s Whaling Heritage (for the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum) and Albert Edel: Moments in Time, Pictures of Place (for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum).

12 thoughts on “The language of genealogy

  1. I enjoyed reading your article. Thank you for the time, thought, and effort you put into this. I concur that a broad vocabulary lends itself to broadening of and deepening of thought.

  2. One immigrant ancestor was described in records from the old country as a “vinedresser and husbandman”. Yes, a grape farmer.

  3. Hi Amy,
    I loved this article for several reasons.
    First, your focus on the dangers of many fact less trees that are posted on public sites.
    Second, your reminder that little details should be researched not overlooked.
    Three, the world is a much more enjoyable place when we expand our vocabular to ‘paint ‘captivating word pictures’ as my college English teacher at Washington U in St louis used to say.

    Dan Hazard

  4. A wonderful article!! Words are such fun – decades ago, in the old Saturday Review of Literature, one article was on the sounds of words, sharp, soft, etc. Then, the occupations: my earliest New Englander was Palmer the nailer. So, thank you – you’ve given me several pleasant memories and associations with this little piece.

  5. I, too, enjoy learning new words as I research my family. And when wise them in my writing, it can help recall and era – and send my readers to a dictionary!

  6. Your reference to diseases and causes of death from bygone ages reminds me of reading someone’s comment in an online tree that their ancestor had died of alcoholism…because the cause of death was “consumption”! I’ll admit that I felt pretty smug knowing that consumption actually meant tuberculosis. But lest I feel TOO smug, I discovered rather late that “poll tax” in the eighteenth century did not mean the dreadful tax meant to disenfranchise poor citizens who were otherwise qualified to vote. It was a tax on all males 16 and older, regardless of race or property-owning status. That answered the question I’d always had as to why those fitting this description were singled out in the 1790 census from younger males and all females.

  7. Excellent article! As a fiction writer, I sometimes wonder whether a particular word is too arcane or “hard” for readers, but generally, I go with it. We should know and appreciate our language. Your example of rivets being used to attach the metal plates on the Titanic deserves an additional sentence. Modern scholarship suggests that the iceberg sheared off the heads of the rivets in several places along the side of the ship, allowing the plates to separate and water to enter. The shipyard workers in Belfast, where she was built, were devastated.

  8. Thank you for this post. Attention to details and words is essential to genealogy and life. Vocabulary is destiny.

    In the late 70s, I used 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary as a required text at Katharine Gibbs School during my first year teaching there. The students objected firmly and politely to the definition of “sublimate” in the text.

    The definition was correct: “to express primitive and socially unacceptable drives in constructive ways, usually through completely unconscious processes.”

    The example was outrageous especially to an all female class. “A female whose unconscious desire it is to enslave men, to dominate and destroy all males becomes the energetic and successful business executive or the president of a college with a largely male faculty, and only her psychiatrist knows that she is sublimating.”

    The students were appalled and vociferous. When I pointed out the offensive definition to the corporate office, 30 days was taken off the list.

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