The Evolution of Language

By Lisa South - Certified Genealogist

I was watching an old western. The homesteaders were in their cabin. A line of Indians was quietly sitting on their horses along the ridge. I sat aghast as the older homesteader turned to his younger brother and said, Waste one of them!  The younger brother put his gun through the window and shot a bullet into the air to try and frighten the Indians away!  The older brother meant, "Waste one of the bullets!!!!" I had a good laugh when I realized that I had interpreted the word "waste" in a modern "Dirty Harry" sort of context, but that's not how the word was used back in the days of the Wild West - or even when that old western was made.

Our language has and continues to evolve and this can cause some confusion as we try to evaluate early records in our genealogy research, for example:

The term "my now wife" is one that appears in some probate records and is often misunderstood. A researcher may assume from this term that there was a previous marriage when in reality it is a term to limit the inheritance rights of a future marriage in case the "now wife" should die before the husband?s will is probated and he remarries.

Sometimes we find the terms "goodman" and "goodwife" (often shortened to goody) in older records. These terms just indicate the head of a household or the mistress of a household.

The title Colonel was often used by old southern planters and usually meant nothing as far as military service or rank, however it adds an additional means of identification and that is helpful.

Among the very early colonists, Mr. & Mrs. were used only by the upper classes.  Mrs. was not a term identifying a woman as married but rather as a woman of "gentle" birth.

Prior to 1750 the term "cousin" was given to almost anyone who was related outside of the immediate family. It was often used when in reality the person was a niece or nephew.

These are just a few examples. The important thing to realize is that the evolution of our language can impact our genealogical research and the earlier the records, the more we should study what those changes were.

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