• The Language of Genealogy: Understanding Old Documents

    Today’s language is quite different from the daily language of our ancestors. Some words and their meanings have all but disappeared from the modern lexicon.

    For the Genealogy Beginner this can make reading old documents confusing if not outright frustrating.



    Archaic Genealogical References

    Recently I was assisting a novice genealogist in transcribing a document from the 1600s that they had been working on for some time. A huge part of the problem they were facing stemmed from an unfamiliarity of the language of the times. To make it worse the unfamiliar words were written in an abbreviated form of the times.

    Transcribing old documents can be difficult enough on its own. The addition of archaic words and abbreviations that have no meaning in modern language simply makes the process nearly impossible; especially while simultaneously struggling with a old script in an aged document.

    In this case, the words that were causing the problem were “Umqhuille”, “Relict” and “Milner”. Umqhuille is a word meaning deceased and Relict means Widow.

    Milner in this time was a merchant who dealt in small, fancy goods. While the modern meaning of the word has changed to mean a seller of hats, the etymology of the word derives from Milan, from where many of these goods were once imported.

    From working out the words, we were able to:

    • Asses that the ancestor in question was deceased at the time of a particular baptism
    • Recognize that one person on the document –Relict – was his wife
    • Understand what his profession was

    From this information, we added an additional generation to the family tree as the Umqhulille and relict named were the grand parents of the individual being baptized. This transcription also helped track down both a Will and a Sassine, which led to a great deal more information on the family researched.

    This purpose of this little story is to demonstrate the importance of becoming familiar with the language of our ancestors. It is more than likely that novice Family tree hunters will run across some common and not-so-common old words while digging for their roots. For this, A genealogical dictionary would be a very helpful tool to have on hand.

    Join us on the Ask a Genealogist Forum for a list of links to some excellent resources for archaic words, old occupations, medical terms and more.

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