Coming to ‘Terms’ with Genealogy
by Bob Brooke
The further back a genealogist searches, the more likely he or she will encounter unfamiliar terms. In particular, terms used to describe relationships among family members have evolved to different or more specific meanings than they did during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The word “cousin,” for instance, was a general term used to refer to any relative outside the immediate family circle. Usually, it referred to a niece or nephew. The beginning researcher who encounters the word “cousin” in early documents and automatically thinks it has today’s meaning may be making a mistake that could seriously confuse or distort his research.
A first cousin is someone who has two of the same grandparents. A second cousin is someone who has the same great-grandparents. As a researcher goes further back, the relationship becomes more distant. So a third cousin is someone whose great -great-grandparents are the same. Removed means that two cousins are from 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 first cousin, once removed. His grandfather?s first cousin is his son’s first cousin, twice removed.
Another term that has changed meaning is “spinster.” In the 18th century and before, “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 a daughter-in-law or stepdaughter. Father, mother and son are subject to the same variations.
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 established by marriage.
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 sister, stepsister or sister-in-law. It could also have meant a “brother in the church” or a good friend.
nephew: While this term was usually used with its modern meaning, it sometimes 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 family members with the same name, often uncles and nephews and didn’t imply a father-son relationship as they do now. In small towns they might even have been used to distinguish persons of the same name who weren’t related at all. Also, these designations weren’t permanent. If Charles Hall, Sr., died or moved away, Charles Hall, Jr. became “Sr.” and Charles Hall III became “Jr.”
german: The word “german” or germane clarified general terms of relationship. “Brothers german” were children of the same parents, distinct from half brothers or brothers-in-law. “Cousins german” were children of brothers or sisters or, as we 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 Colonial times, they weren’t restricted to that time period.
gentleman: A descendant of an aristocratic family, who received his income from the 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 gentleman.
Esq.: An abbreviation for “Esquire,” which referred to a member of the English gentry ranking just below a knight. Originally, it identified a candidate for 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 conduct business.
goodman: A respected member of the community ranked socially above a freeman but beneath a gentleman. His wife was called a goodwife, a term that was frequently shortened to goody. Beginning researchers often mistake the term goody to a woman’s first name.
mister: In Colonial New England, “Mister” was a term of respect applied to gentleman, office holders and clergy. Mistress, and its abbreviated form, Mrs., were used likewise to recognize a woman’s social position or age, without regard to whether she was married. Today, the term “mistress” carries with it a whole different meaning.
master: A title applied to a boy too young to be called Mr.
indentured servant: During the early Colonial period, impoverished European laborers often contracted to work in America for a fixed period-usually four to six years-in return for passage. During their period of indenture, they had few rights. But after their period concluded, they became admitted freemen.