"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.
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
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
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."