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Glossary Of Familial Terms

Glossary Of Familial Terms

As you delve into old letters, diaries, and wills, you'll encounter many commonplace words. Don't make the mistake, however, of assuming that they had the same meaning when they were written in previous eras as they do in modern times. That perception can lead to some serious problems and possible harm to your research. For example, the word transport in our modern terminology is defined as "to carry, transfer, or convey from one person or place to another". In the eighteenth century, the meaning was "to deport, or banish". If you discover an ancestor who was transported from the British Isles to Savannah, Georgia or Melbourne, Australia, a search of the history of both places might reveal some interesting tidbits that carry a completely different context unique to that era.

The solution is to read documents carefully and do not blindly copy down or believe everything that you read. Just because something is in print has no relevance to its accuracy. When doing genealogical research, it is important to know the history of a given locality or event. Take time to ask questions of a historian, fellow genealogist, relatives, or neighbors. The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the best reference tools available to study the historical evolution of a given word.

The words most commonly misunderstood are the ones used to describe relationships between people. The words listed below are a collection of the most common words you will find studying documents and a basic historical meaning.

BROTHER: A male sibling, or a half brother, stepbrother, brother-in-law, husband of a sister-in-law, or a "Brother" in the Church (more common in Protestant terminology). This term is also sometimes used to show close friendship and has nothing to do with a family relationship.

COUSIN: In colonial times, it most often meant nephew or niece. In the broader context, it could also mean any familial relationship, blood or otherwise,( except father, mother, brother, sister), or the contemporary meaning of a child of one's aunt or uncle. Modern usage includes qualifiers such as first, second, third, and once removed, twice removed, etc. First cousin is what most people commonly call their cousins, that is an aunt's or uncle's child. Second cousin is a child of the first cousin, as is a first cousin once removed. Similarly, a first cousin twice removed and a third cousin denote the same member of the family--a first cousin's grandchild.

FREEMAN: One who held the full rights of citizenship, such as voting and engaging in business, as opposed to an INDENTURED SERVANT

GENTLEMAN: A member of the gentry, a descendant from an aristocratic family whose income came from the rental of his land.

GOODMAN: A respected and solid member of the community who ranked above a FREEMAN but below a GENTLEMAN on the social scales.

GOODWIFE: Woman who married a GOODMAN. Often the title was shortened to "GOODY". If you come across names such as Goody Bassett or Goody Jones, they are not actual first names but the abbreviation of the title GOODWIFE.

INDENTURED SERVANT: One who was voluntarily or involuntarily committed to working for someone for a specified number of years (usually 4-10). In most cases, this was in exchange for passsage to America, but people entered into these types of contracts or arrangements for a wide variety of reasons. These people had few-if any-rights, but many pursued this type of position when faced with starvation or deportation. Most people in this catagory had few skills and little access to money. It was the only way for many commoners to afford the passage to America. After the period of work was over, the servant became a FREEMAN. From a legal perspective, Blacks were technically considered INDENTURED SERVANTS, but their emigration to the America was NOT voluntary (in most cases), and their period of indenture would have been permanent had the Emancipation Proclaimation never been issued.

IN-LAW: During the colonial era, this term was used for ANY familial relationship that occured from a marriage. Thus, a woman's father-in-law could be her husband's father or her stepfather. Her son-in-law could be her daughter's husband or her own stepson. In contemporary usage, it is defined as a relative by marriage.

JUNIOR, SENIOR, III, etc.: Not necessarily meaning a father-son relationship, these terms were used to differentiate between men with the same name whether they were related or not. The oldest would be called SENIOR, and the other(s) titled accordingly. If Carl Peterson had a nephew named Carl Peterson, the former would be called SENIOR, the latter JUNIOR. In a small rural area, there might be several men named Carl Peterson. They would be designated SENIOR, JUNIOR, FIRST, SECOND, etc. according to their ages. When Carl Peterson SENIOR, died or moved out of the community, Carl JUNIOR would then become known as SENIOR (in some but not all cases), and each other person would move up in the pecking order. These titles were not (in most cases) permanent. They were conviences in colonial families and rural communities. In contemporary times, the terms JUNIOR and SENIOR have taken on negative connontations.

MR.: A title that could only precede the names of gentlemen, clergy, or government officials.

MRS.: The feminine equivalent of MR., it did not denote marital status but social position. It was a prominent title used by woman of the aristocracy.

NEPHEW: This term has practically the same usage as in modsern times, except in very old records, it could also mean niece. In Middle English it meant grandson or granddaughter.

NOW WIFE: This term is found exclusively in wills. The term implied that there was a former wife.

SISTER: Female equivalent and meaning to BROTHER.

This list is by no means a complete dictionary of terms you will find during the course of your research. However, this list used in conjunction with a study of a good local history for the area in question, will be a good starting point. The bibliography that follows will list some other tools of possible value.


Baker, Wendy. Family Genealogy Recordkeeper. New York, NY: Longmeadow Press, c1985.

Barnhart, Robert K. Barnhardt Dictionary Of Etymology. Bronx, NY: H.W. Wilson, c1988. Ref. 422.03 Bar.

Burchfield, R.W. (Editor). Oxford English Dictionary: Being A Corrected Re-Issue With An Intoduction, Supplement, & Bibliography Of A New English Dictionary On Historical Principles. 13v. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, c1933. Ref. 423 Oxf. (Dictionary Stand-Back Wall).

Hendrickson, Robert. Facts On File Encyclopedia Of Word & Phrase Origins. Revised & Expanded Edition. New York, NY: Facts On File, c1997. Ref. 422.03 Hen.

Jeans, Peter D. Ship To Shore: A Dictionary Of Everyday Words & Phrases Derived From The Sea. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, c1993. Ref. 422.03 Jea.

Skeat, Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary Of The English Language. New Edition, Revised & Enlarged. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, [1910]. Ref. 422 Ske.

Compiled by Bryan L. Mulcahy, Reference Librarian, Ft. Myers-Lee County Library, 10/22/98.

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