What Does That Mean? A Look at Dictionaries for Genealogists

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Did you receive a dictionary as a high school graduation gift? Dictionaries remain important resources, not only for students, but also for lifelong learners. Our shared experiences in defining unknown words or concepts are expressed in the pervasive use of idiomatic expressions such as “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnall’s,” or “Google it.” For genealogists, dictionaries are essential as the working vocabulary or lexicon changes we encounter with each time period that we research or with each new subject we undertake. Here is a small selection of dictionaries that can help you in your research.

  1.  General definitions: When you read original documents, you always encounter words or phrases whose meanings are unknown. Rather than assume meaning from context, consulting a genealogical dictionary will enable you to interpret and analyze the document accurately. Good sources for your home library include What Did They Mean by That: A Dictionary of Historical & Genealogical Terms Old & New by Paul Drake (Heritage Books, 2000, reprinted 2007), its companion More What Did They Mean by That (Heritage Books, 2006), and Barbara Jean Evans’ The New A to Zax: A Comprehensive Genealogical Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians, 2nd ed. (Evansville Bindery, 2000). These titles offer definitions and derivations for words and phrases both obscure and familiar, encompassing a wide range of topics. Are you wondering what your ancestor was doing when the record states that he was “processioning”?  He really wasn’t addicted to parades, but instead, was “walking the boundaries of private lands within the parish” in order to verify their accuracy and resolve any boundary dispute that might have been brought to the vestry’s attention. Was your ancestor described as a “cordwainer”? (He was a shoe or boot maker.) Wondering what being a “Gold Star Mother” meant? (The individual was a member of a patriotic and service-oriented organization of women whose sons were killed during American wars). General genealogical dictionaries are particularly good if you can purchase only one or two titles for your collection.
  2. Medical terminology. Death certificates or diary entries about illnesses can be confusing as the terms for diseases and conditions used in past centuries are often different from those used today. What may look like a reference to a disease may even turn out to be something else entirely. For example, Charlton Rhodes Barkley died as a prisoner of war in General Hospital No. 1 in Frederick, Maryland, just after the battle of South Mountain (September 1862). One of the carded entries in his military record noted that he had died due to “vulnus sclopet.” Despite my three years of high-school Latin, I was unable to determine the meaning of this phrase. While I knew “vulnus” meant wound, what part of the body was a “sclopet”? In the Periodical Source Index (PERSI), I located a list of medical terms used during the Civil War and discovered, much to my chagrin, that “vulnus sclopet” meant nothing more than a generic “gunshot wound.” Closer reading of Charlton’s record later identified the actual cause of death as typhoid (although I’m still looking for a record to describe the site of the gunshot wound).
    One very good web site for this topic is Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms. This site is a “collection of archaic medical terms and their old and modern definitions” whose “primary focus…is to help decipher the Causes of Death found on Mortality Lists, Certificates of Death and Church Death Records from the 19th century and earlier.” You can either search for a specific term, or you can choose from headings in the left hand navigation bar. Initial choices include English, French, German and International. The “English” selection presents an alphabetical list of diseases as well as topical headings for heart and stroke, miner’s diseases, occupational diseases, poisons, and treatments. If you select “International,” you may then choose from a list of twenty languages, including Latin. You will find that “accession” means seizure in Latin as does “anfall” in Swedish; “falecimento” means death in Portuguese; “zpaljenje pluca” means pneumonia in Croat, and the apt “yuck” means scabies in Scottish slang. Look for links to additional information. For example, at the end of the Croatian list of medical terms, there is a link to a separate URL that provides a glossary of medical terms found in Croatian vital records.
  3.  Legal terminology. It is important to understand the terms found in legal documents such as wills, estate papers, court suits, etc. Although a modern law dictionary may help, historical terms or nuances may be missing, making it important to locate a law dictionary published as close to the time period of the record as possible. Many academic libraries, as well as large public libraries, own older editions of the standard, Black’s Law Dictionary. The first (1891) and second editions (1910) are also available on a CD from Archive CD Books USA. Your state or local law library may also be able to assist you or you can look up the term in a comprehensive dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), as such references often provide historical definitions.
    If you are translating foreign records, locate a legal dictionary from the appropriate country, preferably an edition contemporary with the document, or an edition including historical definitions. A. G. M. Duncan’s Green’s Glossary of Scottish Legal Terms (3rd ed., 1992) was very helpful in deciphering Scottish inheritance terminology. In addition, books called “formularies” are helpful as they provide the full text of commonly used legal forms beside their full-text translations. Formularies for various countries, including Peter Gouldesbrough’s Formulary of Old Scots Legal Documents, are listed in the Family History Library catalog.
  4.  Foreign languages. In addition to foreign language medical terms as discussed above, you may need to understand genealogical terms in a foreign language so that you can accurately identify the important information in an original record. The foreign language word lists available at FamilySearch.org are very helpful. Fifteen guides are available covering Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Latin, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. Some are available to download as PDFs; others can be searched on line by clicking on the name of the guide. The Icelandic guide, for example, provides information about language characteristics, alphabetization and spelling rules; key words in Icelandic, such as the words for parents, marriage, parish, year, etc.; and a general word list that includes Icelandic words for occupations, illnesses, causes of death, days of the week, months of the year, numbers, seasons, and times of day.
    Published dictionaries specific to a foreign language, such as Ernest Thode’s German-English Genealogical Dictionary (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2008), are also available. Intended for use in conjunction with a standard German-English dictionary, Thode’s book includes thousands of words, symbols and abbreviations used in church records, civil registration records, family correspondence, genealogical journals, ships’ passenger lists, and emigration records.

These four categories of dictionaries represent only a small fraction of the wide array of dictionaries that can help you in your genealogical research. Check Cyndi’s List under “dictionaries” for an extensive list of dictionary sites, articles, and mailing lists about dictionaries and their uses in supporting your genealogical research.

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