Archaic Words and Phrases in Genealogy

When we succeed in going further back in our family history research, it is likely we will start to encounter words and phrases that are unfamiliar or appear to be "out of context" according to modern usage. Some of these words may be now obsolete jobs, others archaic terms. A knowledge of the meaning of these terms can be helpful when you have undated documents that form part of the research. Knowing when and where words have entered and exited common use is can help you determine an approximate date range. For example, if a letter mentions something heard on the radio, chances are your letter is post 1912 (opening of the world's first purpose built radio factory in Chelmsford, England by Marconi). It can be slightly more difficult when a word remains in use but its meaning changes--in this case, an incorrect assumption could send you down the wrong path!Words that were in common usage in the past may now be considered inappropriate, even hurtful, insensitive, abusive, or offensive and occasionally just plain hilarious. We sometimes find headstones that have a date carved in Roman Numerals. Despite the fall of the Roman Empire millennia ago and modern day usage of Arabic numerals (1,2,3, etc.) Roman Numerals continued to appear throughout history, and we still use them today. Appearing alongside the names of popes and monarchs, the hulls of ships, and still used by the film industry among others.Developed for purposes of commerce, the Roman Numerical system is primarily a counting or tally system. If you don’t remember these numbers from your school days, each tally stick or notch represented “one”. Every fifth notch was then double cut to form a “V” shape, and every tenth notch double crossed to form an “X”. Roman Numerals do not have a zero “0”, no negative values and only 7 digitsRoman DigitArabic Value















When one or more numerals are used to form a number, the value of each symbol is (generally) added together from left to right commencing with the highest value digit. The exception is where a lower value numerical digit is placed in front (to the left) of a higher value digit. When this happens, the lower numerical value should be subtracted from the larger. This usually kicks in one digit away from an incremental increase to the change of digit. (The purpose of this practice is to shorten the string.)Hence the numbers one to ten in order appear as I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX and X.Other examples of this are 9; instead of writing VIIII (5+1+1+1+1), you would write IX (1 subtracted from 10). This pattern continues up the string, so 40 will not appear as XXXX (10+10+10+10) it will show as XL (10 subtracted from 50).Occasional variances do occur, some very old manuscripts just keep on adding numerals without using the subtraction rule. A few indicate a multiplication requirement by placing a bar – above the letter meaning you multiply the number by 1,000. Instead of writing 6,000 as MMMMMM it may appear as VI with a bar over the topIf you have British heritage, you may encounter old documents that were dated by their regnal year. This is particularly common with pre-17th century deeds. A regnal year is calculated from the day, month, and year of accession to the throne. By this calculation, Edward VI’s regnal years falls between 28 January 1547 and 6 July 1553.If you are in doubt of when which King or Queen reigned when here is a quick reminder.MonarchAccession DateEnd of Reign DateWilliam I14 October 10669 September 1087William II26 September 10872 August 1100Henry I5 August 11001 December 1135Stephen26 December 113525 October 1154Henry II19 December 11546 July 1189Richard I3 September 11896 April 1199John27 May 119919 October 1216Henry III28 October 121616 November 1272Edward I20 November 12727 July 1307Edward II8 July 130720 January 1327Edward III25 January 132721 June 1377Richard II22 June 137729 September 1399Henry IV30 September 139920 March 1413Henry V21 March 141331 August 1422Henry VI1 September 14224 March 1461And9 October 147014 April 1471Edward IV4 March 14619 April 1483Edward V9 April 148325 June 1483Richard III26 June 148322 August 1485Henry VII22 August 148521 April 1509Henry VIII22 April 150928 January 1547Edward VI28 January 15476 July 1553Mary6 July 155324 July 1554Philip & Mary25 July 155417 November 1558Elizabeth I17 November 155824 March 1603James I24 March 160327 March 1625Charles I27 March 162530 January 1649Inter-regnum30 January 164929 May 1660Charles II29 May 16606 February 1685Reckoned from 30 January 1649 James II6 February 168511 December 1688Inter-regnum12 December 168812 February 1689William & Mary13 February 168927 December 1694William III28 December 16948 March 1702Anne8 March 17021 August 1714George I1 August 171411 June 1727George II11 June 172725 October 1760George III25 October 176029 January 1820George IV29 January 182026 June 1830William IV26 June 183020 June 1837Victoria20 June 183722 January 1901Edward VII22 January 19016 May 1910George V6 May 191020 January 1936Edward VIII20 January 193611 December 1936George VI11 December 19366 February 1952Elizabeth II6 February 1952 Source: All Ireland Sources Newsletter, Volume 7, No. 5, May 2005If you find documents that you are unsure of the meaning or the meaning seems out of context (especially if they are undated) ask for help. With over 4,000 genealogists in most countries throughout the world, has the combined knowledge and experience to advise you about historic phraseology. If your local library has copies of old dictionaries, these too can be very useful to determine the meaning of a word during the era in which it was used.To learn how the world’s largest family history research firm can help you learn about your ancestors, email the Author: Jayne McGarvey is a professional genealogist with Jayne has over a decade of researching Northern Ireland records and archives. She provides expert tips, tricks, and information on Ireland (mostly Northern Ireland), mingled with some humor.

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February 23, 2017
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