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The OED and Your Family Tree

How often do you run across words that are unfamiliar in your genealogical searching? Knowing the meaning of these words in their historical context may provide clues to the lives of your ancestors.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 558 (approx.)
Labels: Terminology 
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How often do you run across words that are unfamiliar in your genealogical searching? On the census, professions are often difficult to decipher. Do you really know what a tanner, cord winder or sawyer did in 1850? Have you ever run across legal terms that were a surprise, such as relict or chancery?

Any doubt about the meaning of a word indicates the need for the use of a dictionary. Often any dictionary will do, but sometimes you need to see the word in the context of its time to completely understand the meaning. As you well know, many family names are derived from professions, so understanding the meaning of the words may give you some insight in the working lives of your ancestors. When reading deeds, wills and guardianship records, relationships are often delineated in terms that are not popularly used by the genealogist.

The Oxford English Dictionary, commonly known as the OED, is the undisputed authority on the history of the meanings of words in the English language. The English language from 1150 A.D. to current times is documented in this massive historical dictionary that includes over half a million words. Most varieties of English are covered.

In most dictionaries, only the most recent or the most common use of a word is documented. The OED is unique in that the different meanings of a word are arranged in chronological order. Accompanying quotations supply the documentation to verify the different uses of the word. Entries are arranged with the oldest recorded meaning at the beginning.

According to the OED, the word tanner first appeared in 975 A.D. A tanner is a person who either works with hides or converts the hides to leather by tanning. The given name Tanner may denote a family history of that profession. A cord winder is a corrupted form of the word cordwainer. At one time a cordwainer worked with cordwain or cordovan leather, but the familiar word is shoemaker. By understanding the history of this word, a genealogist may trace not only the profession of the family but also find some pertinent clues regarding location. The word sawyer for a profession first appeared in 1350 as a person who sawed lumber, especially in a saw pit. As with the other words, by knowing that your ancestors were involved with lumber, you may be able to trace migratory patterns with more accuracy.

In legal language, genealogists often think of relict as a widow. That is only one meaning. Relict may also mean a survivor, as well as a deserted or discarded person. Those meanings may put a different spin on the relationships of your ancestors. A chancery may mean a high court, a court of record or a treasury. Any one of these offices contain different legal records that may assist in your search. The OED will help in deciphering the meaning of chancery in different states or countries.

Many public and academic libraries have the twenty-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary on their shelves. The OED is also available on CD-ROM or online for a fee at

The information provided in the OED may provide an invaluable resource to the amateur or professional genealogist. By understanding a word in its historical context, you may be able to unearth the clues to go back another generation or to make the jump to another location in your search.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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