Modern Eyes, Old Records

We’ve all heard the expression that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Viewers bring their individual interpretations and ideas to what they see. The phenomenon extends into everything that people look at, including historical documents used in genealogical research. Genealogists looking at sources created decades or centuries ago bring a modern-day point of view—and if those researchers are not careful, those views could result in misinterpretations and unrecognized clues.

Genealogical standards demand that researchers understand the meaning of “words, phrases, and statements in the sources they consult,” and that includes “the meaning for the source’s time and place.”[1] Why wouldn’t researchers want to understand their sources and correctly interpret words, phrases, and abbreviations they find in historic documents? Understanding the true meanings can put genealogists on the path towards a solution, while misinterpretations and overlooked clues can lead them astray.

Terminology describing relationships is one area that causes confusion and could mislead unsuspecting researchers. A current-day reference to an in-law means a relationship established by marriage. But that is not necessarily so in records of the past. An older record referring to someone as a “son-in-law” could mean that person was a stepson. Similarly, the term cousin has a specific meaning today that differs from past usage, when cousin could refer to someone with whom one had a close relationship, even if unrelated by blood.[2]

Months expressed as numbers seem straightforward enough. Today we call the first month of the year January, the second February, and so on, but that wasn’t always the case. The Gregorian calendar numbers the months the way we do today, with the year beginning on January 1st, but the Julian calendar started the new year on March 25th—and therefore the first month was not January but March. The names of our ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months are based on their positions in the old Julian year (for example, the name of our tenth month, October, comes from “octo,” the Latin word for eight). Researchers must take care to understand the calendar change and know which calendar was being used by record creators.

Occupations of the past make up another area of potential confusion. A person who worked as a porter, for example, could have been somebody who transported things, somebody employed by a railroad to assist passengers, or someone who took care of a building. References to the occupation “engineer” could conjure up a modern-day image—but the term could refer to a person who operated a steam engine.

When researchers encounter terms that have different meanings today than they did at the time the record was created, interpreting those records using current meanings could misdirect future research. In other cases researchers will come across phrases or words they haven’t seen before. They may be stumped by cryptic causes of death such as ague, cholera morbus, and dentition fits. They could easily overlook specific meaning in terms such as cottier, consort, and relict. And they could misconstrue the significance of unfamiliar abbreviations for names, places, dates, and other terms.

Beyond the ambiguous and unfamiliar words and phrases, genealogists’ knowledge of present-day geography, government, and record sets could impact their effectiveness in identifying and accessing records. Geographical boundaries, place names, administrative divisions, governments, and recordkeeping have changed. Researchers who presume that the current system was in place at the time a record was created could be working in the dark. Vital records may not exist, or a boundary change may mean that records are part of a collection in a nearby locale. Genealogists who try to solve research problems based on the way things work today are less likely to succeed. For the best results, researchers must take time to learn about the people, time, place, and records under study.

What can researchers do? The first step is to recognize the potential problem. Researchers must be aware that a word found in an historical record may have had a different meaning than it does today and they must identify resources for investigating the meaning of words and abbreviations.  The “Dictionaries & Glossaries” category on Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet is a good place to begin. All genealogist should spend time doing background work to learn about the time and place under study before trying to access records.  An informed researcher is more likely to be successful.

People interpret records using their own knowledge and experience. Unsuspecting researchers may see familiar words and interpret them using today’s meanings, or they may run into confusing expressions and neglect to investigate. An individual’s view is what deems something to be beautiful—and a genealogist’s eyes and experience can make the difference between a correct and an incorrect interpretation of a historical record. It’s up to researchers to remember that today’s society, government, recordkeeping, and language are different than those of the past—and to be aware of those differences as they conduct research and analyze their findings.

[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Turner Publishing, an imprint of, 2014), 17 (standard 24).

[2] For more on this subject, see Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd edition (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2000), 21–45 (chapter 2, “Familiar Record Practices: Problems & Terminology,” which includes a section called “Evolution of the Language”).


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