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|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
Subject dictionaries explain terms associated with specialized subject fields, occupations, or professions. They define unique terms and words not usually found in general dictionaries. There are law dictionaries, mathematics dictionaries, music dictionaries, and genealogical dictionaries. Specialized dictionaries can be found in most library reference collections and should not be overlooked by family historians.
Colonial American English, by Richard M. Lederer, Jr., defines words and phrases used in colonial America from 1608 to 1783. The meanings of some words used during this period are now obscure and difficult to find in modern dictionaries. The author does not suggest that his dictionary replace the Oxford English Dictionary (see Historical and Etymological Dictionaries for more on the OED) or similar unabridged works. Instead, he directs his readers to use his work for a better understanding of colonial writing (Lederer 1985, 7). Each word is defined according to figure of speech and is used in a sentence written in colonial America. Thus, the word address is described as a noun, and its first meaning is given as skillful management. In 1775 General Heath, describing soldiers, wrote: . . . great address and gallantry were exhibited. The word is also defined as: A petition; in 1719 William Burd ‘moved an address to the Governor’” (Lederer 1985, 1011).
The Dictionary of Genealogy, by Terrick V. H. Fitzhugh, describes the meaning of English terms and phrases that have disappeared from common use in Great Britain. For example, Fitzhugh describes the term half-baptized as a colloquial term meaning ’christened privately’, i.e., not in church” (Fitzhugh 1991, 131). (Often, if a newborn was not expected to live, it was baptized at home. If the child did survive, the parents were required to bring the child to the church for a regular church ceremony. Occasionally both ceremonies were entered into the register as baptisms.) This dictionary also contains a Guide to Ancestry Research; this is a short instructional manual on English genealogy and a list of useful addresses. A revised edition of this work was published in 1994.
Several dictionaries provide definitions of American genealogical terms and foreign and archaic words. A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians, by Barbara Jean Evans, resulted from the author’s thirty years of collecting words and phrases she did not understand while conducting her own research and assisting others. Evans’ focus is on words used in history and genealogy, including archaic and Norman words often found in old manuscripts. Foreign words appearing in the first edition of Evans’ dictionary were eliminated from the later editions, although Latin phrase entries have been kept and expanded. The appendixes feature a list of nicknames and a list of Dutch-to-English and English-to-Dutch given names.
Ancestry’s Concise Genealogical Dictionary, compiled by Maurine and Glen Harris, is, as the title implies, shorter and less definitive than A to Zax. It is compact and portable and usually provides only one definition per term. A bibliography lists the sources consulted. The authors suggest that the serious researcher consult these works for additional or more detailed definitions. A list of commonly found abbreviations appears at the end of the book.
Genealogical Dictionary, by Michael L. Cook (Evansville, Ind.: Cook Publications, 1979), is comparable in coverage to the A to Zax dictionary. Cook’s dictionary gives the definitions of more than 2,500 words, including legal, medical, French, German, Spanish, and Latin terms. The definitions are informative and easily understandable, and they often include several different meanings for each term. Cook’s dictionary also includes an alphabetical county index showing the state in which each county is found.
When searching for definitions of words found in documents, it is wise to consult all three genealogical dictionaries; some words appear in one or two of the dictionaries and not in the other. For example, the term cousin is used often in court documents, especially probate records, and is frequently misinterpreted by researchers. The example here shows that this term can be used to mean the son or daughter of an uncle or aunt. It can also refer to a close friend or even to someone whose exact relationship is not known.
Black’s Law Dictionary is the standard dictionary for legal terms. For example, suppose one finds the term penal sum when reading a court record concerning an ancestor. It might be assumed that the words referred to some sort of prison obligation. Black’s Law Dictionary provides the following definition for penal sum: "a sum agreed upon in a bond, to be forfeited if the condition of the bond is not fulfilled” (Black 1990, 1133). Although this dictionary primarily gives modern interpretations of words, references are often provided for the historical meanings of legal terms.
An interesting dictionary for both the casual reader and the family historian is Morbus: Why and How Our Ancestors Died: A Genealogist’s Dictionary of Terms Found in Vital Records with Descriptions of the Diseases as They Relate to the Health of Our Ancestors, by Rosemary A Chorzempa. This dictionary lists the most common death terms and their meanings as used in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and America. Morbus is a Latin term for disease. It was used in early records as a shortened term for cause of death. Thus, morbus apoplexy means cause of death due to apoplexy (stroke). Chorzempa’s dictionary ends with a list, compiled by the Polish Genealogical Society, of common terms found as causes of death in German, Latin, Polish, and Russian.