But I Thought I Knew That

Genealogists are usually good about knowing that they should figure out the meanings of words they don’t know.

That same thing applies to words that they think they know–in fact, that’s when knowing the meaning is even more important so that meanings are not misunderstood. There are two main situations where this can be a problem:

  • legal references. Certain words when used in a legal document have a specific meaning and that meaning can be different from what is meant when a layman uses that same word.
  • cultural, pop, political and historical references. The meanings of words have changed over time. A newspaper may use a slang term to refer to your ancestor that may tell you something about the ancestor (and perhaps the newspaper as well). Depending upon what you know about the ancestor, the reference could be a clue. A late-1850 reference to your ancestor as a know-nothing would be a statement that may require a review of that term.