What does that mean?

One of the wonderful things about genealogy is running into phrases and terms you have never heard before. It is a window into how people spoke years ago and teaches us about how our language changes over time.

There are a few sources that genealogists can reach for when encountering a phrase or word they don’t understand. When this occurs, I turn to Barbara Jean Evans’ A to Zax and Paul Drake’s What Did They Mean By That? A typical dictionary might not offer historical definitions of the terms you research, but these two have created dictionaries specific to genealogical research. All the terms are framed in the context of American genealogy, so you are sure to get the definition you seek.

I thought I would share some of the terms I commonly run into when I do genealogy. More often than not I find these terms used in deeds and probate records. These records are legal in nature and often contain impediments to understanding everyday speech, such as the regular use of Latin and boilerplate religious text. (Think about the first few paragraphs of a will where one commits their soul unto God, for example.) Once you get past this, however, you can see how people used to speak about themselves, their property, and their relationships with each other.

Peppercorn rent – a very small sum paid as rent (see illustration above).

“yearly quit rent of one PeperCorn on the first day of March” – from a deed between John Penn Sr. and Jr. to Paul Everhart (see Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania Deeds, 1773-1886; Index. Viewed on FamilySearch.org). This deed represents a part of the breakup of a large property owned by the Penn family known as the “Proprietor’s Manor of Denmark” in Franklin Township.

Plat – an outline of surveyed land, usually of a single piece of property or a township.

Grass widow – an unmarried woman who has had a child.

Groop – a pen for cattle.

Messuage – a property with a dwelling house and usually a barn or other supplemental buildings.

Housewright – a carpenter who works on houses.

Shipwright – a carpenter who builds ships.

Wainwright – one who builds and repairs carts and wagons.

Tract – a piece of land OR a short book on a specific subject, usually religious.

Rights of dower and power – property a bride brings into her marriage. Sometimes seen written as “rights of dowery” (see image at right).

“And furthermone Phoebe the now married Wife of the said John Sheldon Center here to commenting and giving up her Right of Dower and Power.” – from a deed between John Sheldon Center and Aaron Tay dated 13 April 1787 (from Middlesex County, MA Record books of the registry of deeds, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, 1649-1900; indexes: grantee [1639-1905] and grantor [1639-1950], viewed on FamilySearch.org.)

Administrator – a person appointed by a probate court to settle the estate affairs of one who died without leaving a valid will.

Executor – a person named in a will to settle estate matters.

Administratrix/Executrix – a female named in these cases.

Flotsam – any material that floats and is cast overboard to lighten the load of a ship.

Deranged – in a military context, this is an adjective used to describe an officer who has had their unit disbanded.

Cordwainer – a shoemaker.

Husbandman – a farmer who raised and bred livestock.

Chattel – moveable personal property.

These are some of the odd or outdated terms that I often run into when reading historical documents. What are some interesting expressions you run into while doing genealogy?


Barbara Jean Evans, The New A to Zax (Champaign, Ill.: B.J. Evans, 1990).

Paul Drake, What Did They Mean By That? (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, Inc., 1994).

____, More What Did They Mean By That? (Westminster, Md.: Heritage Books, Inc., 2006).

About Raymond Addison

Raymond earned his BA in History from Stonehill College. During his time there he worked as an archivist's aide. He took roles in digitizing record collections and in preserving and restoring 19th century business ledgers. Prior to working with NEHGS, he worked with the Cambridge Public Library as a circulation librarian. He began studying his own genealogy as a hobby and quickly started showing library users how they could explore the field for themselves. In addition to his genealogical interests, Raymond enjoys being active in his free time and is an avid tennis player.

20 thoughts on “What does that mean?

  1. I have found Black’s Law and the 1803 American Clerk magazine (both have been digitized are on line, to be valuable to learn the terms. Both boilerplate and general terms. As an example “warrant and defend” was the sellers promise to help fend off any questionable claims. In NYS, as long as the buyer and sellers each had copies if the transaction that sufficed. It was later that deeds had to be registered in the proper county’s clerks office. And clerks were paid 10 cents to make copies. I think that is where redundant terms were used. Hereditaments described structures and appurtenances were things that cast shadows
    as an example

    1. Thank you for sharing more examples! I have often come across warrant and defend and hadn’t known exactly what it meant. Hereditaments is an interesting one.

      I’ll have to look at Black’s Law Dictionary or the American Clerk magazine next time I find a term I don’t know.

      1. Good luck,the boiler plate definitions in both books will make them easier to read. The American clerk publication is a do it your self and for they could produce legally binding and acceptable documents.my private email can help you discuss this in more detail with me if you want to..Rick

  2. To be more specific: there was a difference between a shoemaker and a Cordwainer. a Cordwainer made shoes and leather goods out of Cordovan leather as to other natural leather, or so I’ve read about in the past.

    1. A cordwainer was a guild member who learned the art of shoemaking, including measurements/knife work and record keeping

  3. This is a great article. One word I have found in old wills that makes me want to smile or cry is “relic” referring to the widow. What meaning or context makes the word appropriate in this case?

    1. The term is correctly spelled “relict”, but it derives from the word “relic” — something left after loss or decay. :”Relict”, meaning “widow”, refers to the fact that she has been left behind after the death of her husband. It seems to only be used for widows — not widowers.

  4. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about 18th century clothing through reading the 1760 estate inventory of my great great great-granduncle, William Webb of Boston. It was like learning a foreign language!

    His possessions included a silk sagathy coat, a red ratteen surtout, a red ratteen banyan, 1 stript holland banyan, 1 blue beaver coat, 1 combat cloak and more. I knew what the combat cloak and the beaver coat were, but had to consult more than one dictionary for the others.

  5. “The legal guardian” of orphaned minor children, buying and selling property on their behalf, could technically be anyone, but not infrequently it was the children’s mother. That seems so odd to us today, that a widow would have to be appointed guardian of her own children…and that once so appointed, she would be cloaked in such impersonal language!

  6. Some of the redundancy in English legalese is a result of the merger of Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and Norman French (Latin) tradition. For instance “last will and testament” — will comes from Old English/German “wille”, testament from the Latin “testamentum”.

    Latin and French phrases frequently creep into wills. I recently read a 16th century will in which the testator referred to his wife as being “enceinte” (pregnant), and making provision for the unborn child.

  7. Dower right isn’t necessarily the right of the wife to property she brought into the marriage. In old Massachusetts wills and legal proceedings, it refers to the widow’s “dower” as her right to a share in the real property left by her husband. I have one ancestor who had a dower right to a certain portion of a very large house, including rights of passage through common areas and part of the garden, etc. Her children all sold their share of the house and moved to another state in 1776. She didn’t die until years later, but I have never learned if she continued to live in her dowered portion of the house. The new owners were distant cousins, so it is possible she did.

    1. Perhaps an inventory completed when she died, may show what part of the house she may have been occupying when she died. I found a similar will and inventory that show the same setup..

  8. Flotsam – goods that float off a sinking ship. Jetsam – goods that are thrown off a sinking ship, either to lighten it or perhaps in the hope of saving them.

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