Old English Words
9/28/2009
From acrazed to zythepsary, family history documents are full of archaic words. Don't get stumped—here's how to figure out what your ancestors were talking about.

Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll found inspiration and humor in out-of-date English. He filled his famous nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" with lines such as "All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe." You, on the other hand, are probably more confused than bemused when you come across an incomprehensible word in an old record.

You're apt to discover archaic terms in documents from diaries to newspapers. The meaning of the unfamiliar word may hold the clue to an ancestorOs occupation, appearance, cause of death or legal transaction. Perhaps an old document will reveal that your ancestor worked in a zythepsary (a brew house) or was a peder, (a small-tract farmer).

If a letter calls your forebear a mumpsimus, he was an "incorrigible, dogmatic, old pedant," according to Jeffrey Kacirk's Forgotten English (Quill, $11). That word traces back to a 15th-century preacher who miswrote the Latin sumpsimus, then refused to acknowledge his mistake. His misspelling came to signify a stubborn personality. Unfortunately, deciphering these words isn't as easy as cracking open the closest copy of Webster's. When was the last time you found peder in the dictionary? Read on to learn how you can decode old, obsolete words and get on with your research.

English Lessons
Lexicographers—people who study the history of language—divide English into three distinct periods: Old English (the fifth through 11th centuries), Middle English (the 12th through 15th centuries) and Modern English (the 16th century to the present). Within each era, new words have been born and old ones discarded in an endless cycle.

When the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary was published a few years ago, it included 10,000 more entries than the previous one. Words that are in vogue today, such as multitask and day trading, may not be around tomorrow. Expressions may remain in use but gain additional interpretations, or change meanings altogether. We adopt terms from other languages and add words (such as e-mail) that come along with new technology. Even slang words that once induced parental threats of mouthwashing with soap have fallen into common usage (just ask your grandkids).

Decoding Strategies
You can solve word mysteries much as you do genealogy puzzles: with analytical thinking and savvy research. We've come up up with five tactics to try when deciphering confounding terms.

First, step back and spell. So you've come across an old-fashioned- looking word and haven't a clue what it means. Before panic sets in, pause and look again. Write it on another sheet of paper and double-check to make sure you've transcribed it properly—the problem may be unclear handwriting instead of a weird word. (See the October 2001 Family Tree Magazine for help deciphering handwriting.) Rather than an old term, could the word be:

An abbreviation? Your mysterious word might just be missing some letters. For example, many legal documents contain shortened versions of common terminology. You can determine what the letters stand for by consulting special dictionaries or abbreviation keys. Compile a list of the abbreviations you encounter to save time later.

A misspelling? Standardized spelling is a result of universal education, which didn't happen until the 20th century. The unfamiliar word may be a spelling error. In these cases, try a phonetic pronunciation—say the word aloud and listen to yourself. It may not look like any word you know, but does it sound like one?

Another form of English? Even though the same language is spoken in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, differences in word usage, meaning and spelling are more common than you might think. The British School of Boston even includes a short lexicon of "translations"—for example, a sidewalk in America is called a pavement in England—in its weekly newsletter so American and British parents can communicate. British English A to Zed by Norman W. Schur and Eugene H. Ehrlich (Facts on File, $18.95) explains the English of England. In Story of English (Penguin, $24.95), Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil explore the language as it developed around the world. For example, depending on where your ancestor lived, he might have called a donkey a cuddy, moke, nirrup or pronkus. Locate other dictionaries through online bookstores by searching on terms such as Australian English.

Another language? In deeds and court documents, you'll likely encounter legal terminology in Latin. For instance, according to A to Zax by Barbara Jean Evans, habendum et tenedum means "to have and to hold" in real estate transactions. For foreign-language words, consult a translation dictionary or use a Web translator such as BabelFish.

For more ways to decipher difficult words, see the April 2004 Family Tree Magazine.

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