Coming to 'Terms' with Genealogy
by Bob Brooke
The further back a genealogist searches, the more likely he or she will
unfamiliar terms. In particular, terms used to describe relationships
members have evolved to different or more specific meanings than they did
17th and 18th centuries.
The word "cousin," for instance, was a general term used to refer to any
outside the immediate family circle. Usually, it referred to a niece or
beginning researcher who encounters the word "cousin" in early documents
automatically thinks it has today's meaning may be making a mistake that
seriously confuse or distort his research.
A first cousin is someone who has two of the same grandparents. A second
someone who has the same great-grandparents. As a researcher goes further
relationship becomes more distant. So a third cousin is someone whose
great -great-grandparents are the same. Removed means that two cousins are
different generations. Someone once removed would be a child of a person's
grandparents? siblings. For example, a father?s first cousin is his son's
cousin, once removed. His grandfather?s first cousin is his son's first
Another term that has changed meaning is "spinster." In the 18th century
"spinster" referred to any woman who lived alone, whether she was single
or a widow.
Today, this term identifies a woman who has never married.
The beginning researcher should become familiar with the following terms:
daughter: While it may be used in the modern sense, it might also refer to
daughter-in-law or stepdaughter. Father, mother and son are subject to the
daughter-in-law: This term might have the same significance it has today
or it might
identify a stepchild. "In-law" simply signified any relationship
brother or sister: Both of these terms may refer either's current meaning
or to a
stepbrother or sister, a brother or sister-in-law, or the husband of a
stepsister or sister-in-law. It could also have meant a "brother in the
church" or a
nephew: While this term was usually used with its modern meaning, it
referred to a niece or even a male or female grandchild in early records.
junior, senior, II, etc.: These post-name labels were used to distinguish
members with the same name, often uncles and nephews and didn't imply a
relationship as they do now. In small towns they might even have been used
distinguish persons of the same name who weren't related at all. Also,
designations weren't permanent. If Charles Hall, Sr., died or moved away,
Hall, Jr. became "Sr." and Charles Hall III became "Jr."
german: The word "german" or germane clarified general terms of
"Brothers german" were children of the same parents, distinct from half
brothers-in-law. "Cousins german" were children of brothers or sisters or,
identify them today, first cousins.
Besides terms that identify familial relationships, there are those that
were used to
indicate a person's social status. Class consciousness here in America
grew out of
that of Britain. While the following terms were used mostly during
they weren't restricted to that time period.
gentleman: A descendant of an aristocratic family, who received his income
rental of lands. He was a member of the landed gentry. Strictly speaking,
if the son
of a gentleman left home to become a tradesman, he lost his title. But if
he took up
a profession such as law or the ministry, he was still considered a
Esq.: An abbreviation for "Esquire," which referred to a member of the
gentry ranking just below a knight. Originally, it identified a candidate
knighthood who served as attendant to a knight. Today, it often refers to
a member of
the law profession.
freeman: A person so designated was literally a "free man" and was
entitled to the
rights of a citizen-specifically, the right to vote and the right to
goodman: A respected member of the community ranked socially above a
beneath a gentleman. His wife was called a goodwife, a term that was
shortened to goody. Beginning researchers often mistake the term goody to
mister: In Colonial New England, "Mister" was a term of respect applied to
gentleman, office holders and clergy. Mistress, and its abbreviated form,
used likewise to recognize a woman's social position or age, without
whether she was married. Today, the term "mistress" carries with it a
master: A title applied to a boy too young to be called Mr.
indentured servant: During the early Colonial period, impoverished
often contracted to work in America for a fixed period-usually four to six
return for passage. During their period of indenture, they had few rights.
their period concluded, they became admitted freemen.
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