What is the Difference between Genealogy and Family History?

August 9, 2013  - by 

25 June 2013 marked an important date in the history of discovering one’s ancestors. On that day User:Morphh merged two Wikipedia articles “Genealogy” and “Family History” into a single article titled “Genealogy.” The merge was the culmination of a two-year discussion (now closed) among Wikipedians over whether the terms are synonyms or have different meanings. The consensus was that any distinctions in modern English were so subtle and undefined that there should be only one article.

Which term is more popular? Why did the title “Genealogy” trump “Family History” in the merger? This portion of the Wikipedia process is not entirely explained (Update: User:Morphh clarifies the decision was based on Article Title conventions, such as word recognizability and popularity; see comment below).

Search engine keyword analysis is a powerful tool to measure the popularity of words. Programs, such as Google AdWord’s Google Keyword Tool, measure how many times in a given period people perform Google searches for particular words. Here is the current measurement:

English (all countries) Genealogy Family History
Global monthly searches 4,090,000 2,240,000


So at present, the English-speaking world searches the Internet nearly twice as often for the term “genealogy,” as compared to “family history.”

To reach the widest audience, marketers know, if they have to choose one or the other, that the term “genealogy” is the most popular word in our genre.

Another interesting idea – how are the terms used differently in British English and American English? In the United Kingdom, a society dedicated to discovering one’s ancestors is called a “family history society.” In the United States, the same group is referred to as a “genealogical society.” Are there any real differences in the activities and purposes of these organizations? Or is this simply a difference between British English and American English?

What do you think?

  1. In today’s world are “genealogy” and “family history” used interchangeably?
  2. Is there a difference? Should there be a difference?
  3. Which term do you use more often to describe the discovery of one’s ancestors?

My personal opinion is the same, the words “genealogy” and “family history” are synonyms. I also consider “genealogy” quantifiably more popular, but recognize both are used interchangeably to convey the meaning of what we do.

I’d love to hear from you!

Nathan Murphy

Nathan W. Murphy, MA, AG is a United States and Canada Research Consultant at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. He specializes in Southern United States and English family trees.

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  1. I think of genealogy as the research and compilation of names into charts
    Family History to me suggests researching, discovering and “knowing” the individuals.

    1. Pure Genealogy in The Body of Christ Family Genealogy & History Book of Life. Book of Mormon – Ether 3:25 And when the Lord had said these words, he showed unto the brother of Jared all the inhabitants of the earth which had been, and also all that would be; and he withheld them not from his sight, even unto the ends of the earth.

      Why not use the pattern provided, used in First Corinthians, King James Version (KJV)? Paul the Apostle and Sosthenes our brother wrote it to the church of God which is at Corinth. . . . 12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. . . . 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? 18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. 19 And if they were all one member, where were the body? 20 But now are they many members, yet but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. 22 Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: 23 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. 24 For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked. 25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. 26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. 28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?
      30 Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? 31 But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

      Now, having said all that, I state clearly that pure genealogy is the framework of descending bones in the patriarchal family of Christ, He being our Head. Family History, with all of its members, components and functions, is indeed the “flesh” on the genealogical bones in the patriarchal body of Christ. The Family Genealogy and History Book of Life kept in Heaven and on earth.

      Consider the process of growth of any infant, a child of God. Nothing is fitly framed and kept solid and secure, unless and until the bones are developed, upon which all organs and parts are bound together and nourished (bone marrow); otherwise, crippling and deformed side effects. Since building strong bones is part of a healthy lifestyle, (which includes avoiding smoking and alcohol, which are risk factors for developing osteoporosis), we should live the Word of Wisdom, keep the spirit of Elijah, and establish through our pedigree bones the virtuous, undefiled body of Christ.
      Else, all of our efforts and exertions, no matter how well intended, will be for naught, be overthrown, and destroyed.

      Joseph Smith, Jr.; March 10, 1844;
      History of the Church, 6:249-254
      . . . Now for Elijah. The spirit, power, and calling of Elijah is, that ye have power to hold the key of the revelation, ordinances, oracles, powers and endowments of the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood and of the kingdom of God on the earth; and to receive, obtain, and perform all the ordinances belonging to the kingdom of God, even unto the turning of the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the hearts of the children unto the fathers, even those who are in heaven. . . . I wish you to understand this subject, for it is important; and if you will receive it, this is the spirit of Elijah, that we redeem our dead, and connect ourselves with our fathers which are in heaven, and seal up our dead to come forth in the first resurrection; and here we want the power of Elijah to seal those who dwell on earth to those who dwell in heaven. This is the power of Elijah and the keys of the kingdom of Jehovah.

  2. I read recently a quote that “genealogy” was the skeleton and “family history” put meat on the bones. Sorry I don’t recall who said it, but it fits with my perception that “genealogy” is the building of the tree and “family history” puts discovery, meaning and understanding of the lives of the individuals that are on the tree. Does that make sense?

  3. While interchangeable, family history seems to describe the act of synthesizing stories out of data. I’m ok with using either one, but creating a meaningful story for an individual is what I try to accomplish. If I feel I am speaking to someone outside Utah, I usually begin my conversation with the word genealogy, though.

    1. See that’s the thing. They are not interchangeable. Genealogy is concerned with who is related to whom and what are their names, event dates, and event places. Family history would be concerned with why a family left Philadelphia, PA and went to Zanesville, Ohio. What was the father’s choice of occupations and why? Why was Sister excommunicated from the Church of England and why did she die a year later? See, genealogy doesn’t ask these questions, family history does. It’s just apple and oranges guys!!

      1. I think all of you have valid points. Sometimes the terms can be interchangeable and sometimes not. It depends on the circumstances. I mentor community college students in family research. I have been very careful about calling myself a genealogist because I am not certified. My title for status purposes is family research specialist. In working with the students and because the majority of them are African American, there are many stories that include slavery, Reconstruction, loss of contact with family, migration and miscegenation. First we have to find the genealogy of a family, the who begat whom, but as Mr. Ledyard has stated, with that is the telling of how one’s family got from there to here and why, what, when and how is the meat of family research.

  4. Everyone seems to be getting it all wrong. There is a very distinct difference. Whereas, Family History is the research of ancestral or descendant lines, in general; a Genealogy (or Descendancy) is a type of Family History research. It identifies the descendants of your subject.

  5. I make a distinction between “genealogy” which is establishing a line of descent, and “family history” which is the story of one’s ancestors .

    1. I agree with Nathan. I have previously posted that I see genealogy as building the skeleton (he refers to “establishing a line of descent”) and family history is putting meat on the bones (“the story of one’s ancestors”).

      1. Genealogy and family history are different. I support Tony Dell’s concept of genealogy being the skeleton and family history putting meat on the bones. I agree with a well known Genealogist who said “genealogy is nothing without local history”. I believe genealogy charts are an important part of local history.

  6. The word genealogy and family history are symbiotically related.However,genealogy encompasses all lines of descent of a people while family history may not necessarily incorporate everything concerning a people

    1. Perhaps it would be of great interest to place this discussion within the historical perspective of the prophet Moroni. Now he was a genealogist indeed, who had access to much primary documentation. What did he do with the original records of Ether? Well, he gave “an account of those ancient inhabitants who were destroyed by the hand of the Lord upon the face of this north country.” He assumes the “first part of this record, which speaks concerning the creation of the world, and also of Adam, and an account from that time even to the great tower, and whatsoever things transpired among the children of men until that time, is had among the Jews”. So, “Therefore I do not write those things which transpired from the days of Adam until that time; but they are had upon the plates; and whoso findeth them, the same will have power that he may get the full account.” Then Moroni says, “But behold, I give not the full account, but a part of the account I give, from the tower down until they were destroyed.”

      It should therefore be clearly understood, that “the creation of the world, and also of Adam” are certainly validated from primary source record keeping, in this given instance, from Moroni, the genealogist historian.
      Also, in relation to this thread, is it not of particular interest, that Moroni gives the dry bones genealogy of Ether first, he being the record compiler, for the Book of Ether, as an obvious way of providing ancient validation in data sources? So should this not be of great interest, as after the direct record of the genealogy of the recorder, comes the flesh on the bones; or, the family history, with its accompanying genealogy by descent, through his ancestry from Jared, “with his brother and their families, with some others and their families, from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people”? All this again proves the authenticity of Biblical origins and time periods; as so also done in The Pearl of Great Price, by the genealogist and historian Abraham.

      1. After taking a Thanksgiving break, I noted I forgot to add the reference to my note:

        I should also add data on Abraham.

        From a genealogical standpoint only, I note: “Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam” and “the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry” This provides the reason, from a genealogy standpoint, why there is so much contradiction between the translation of Joseph Smith, Jr. of these records, with Facsimiles, and current interpretations by Egyptologists. The Egyptologists are deciphering records and data sets filtered through various generations of Idolatry, in which their patriarchal order included altered secret orders, and name and identity changes, such as those kept by the Gadianton robbers, as mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith, Jr., however, provided unfiltered true information, combining astronomy connections to the Throne of God, in His Universe, Priesthood Order on how to return to God, as well as physical relationships of the earth and its movements and rotations, important for practical use in agriculture; navigation; etc. So the Egyptologists are not all wrong, per se, and Joseph Smith, Jr. amd translations, are not wrong at all.

        1. Continuing, with a correction: “So the Egyptologists are not all wrong, per se, and Joseph Smith, Jr. and translations, are not wrong at all. Paraphrasing item noted by Joseph Smith, Jr., or using it; transposing it into this context; due to Idolatry, re: “The Prophet Joseph Smith explained: “I believe the Bible and the [Egyptian Texts with Facsimiles] as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers [Abraham with his handed down records]. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt [Egyptian] priests have committed many errors” (TPJS, p. 327).

          And again, “From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many points touching the salvation of men, had been taken from the Bible, as well as the surviving [Egyptian Texts with Facsimiles], or lost before it was compiled” (TPJS, pp. 9-10).”

  7. A genealogist is a professional researcher, who studies other subjects, such as the laws that governed our ancestors. A family historian is an amateur who researches his own ancestry and nobody else’s.

  8. Id be curious to know if the same discussion was had now, almost 6 years later, if the same results would be had. I feel like the terms are developing more individuality with time.

  9. What is the Difference between Genealogy and Family History?
    Genealogy, as practiced by Genealogist or hobbyist, is often highly specialized and is a multi-disciplined activity or profession. It incorporates two primary disciplines Genealogy and Family History. They are complementary but not the same. Both have been around since mankind began to form early societies.
    Genealogies have been used for many reasons. Some of the earliest written and oral accounts were used to provide an understanding of whom you were talking about in stories. If you were telling a story about a David in a line of Davids then the genealogy or lineage was they specified which David the story was about. They could often be found at the beginning of the story. Family Histories were often the story or stories being told, especially in the home.
    Genealogy in its purest form is the development of a lineage. Family History is the story or lore associated with the family. Family History can be told with only the barest amount of genealogical input, but Genealogy does not have much meaning without Family History. Genealogy answers Who, What, Where and When. Family History adds How and Why, as well as anecdotes, jokes, what-ifs posed by various members of the family.
    The deeper in history you go the greater the chance for the story to seem clinical… Family History then becomes a more historical process of describing an ancestor, hopefully engagingly and truthfully. This is where Family History diverges and exceeds the goals of genealogy and requires greater research to develop the stories from the past.
    I have the highest regard for the topic, research methods, and people who practice genealogical research. Without good genealogy then what is the point of writing about a John Doe who is not related or even associated with the family that is being researched. It ensures that we stay on target and don’t waste valuable time and effort on additional research and writing.
    Which term is more popular? Why did the title “Genealogy” trump “Family History” in the merger?
    This is a marketing practice to increase your audience on the internet known as search engine optimization or SEO. You described some results and clearly understand the principles of the subject. Why would you create a product or offer a service and not advertise? SEO is a form of advertisement. So, this is partly why the words Genealogy won out.
    How are the terms used differently in British English and American English? In the United Kingdom, a society dedicated to discovering one’s ancestors is called a “family history society.” In the United States, the same group is referred to as a “genealogical society.”
    Are there any real differences in the activities and purposes of these organizations?
    My understanding is yes and no, mostly no. The British and Welsh people I’ve dealt with seem to be more cautious about making associations of names to be added to their family trees. I think that the emphasis leans slightly more towards history.
    As they told all of Americans who worked with them, the average person in the UK has a better knowledge of History then does the average American. It’s true, but they have the point of view and conclusions all mixed up!
    Or is this simply a difference between British English and American English?
    They might argue that we put the cart before the horse. I think it is a matter of preference and somewhat on emphasis. Americans emphasize the order of operation, Genealogy then Family History. The British and indeed many of our European counterparts may prefer to avoid the stigmas which many academics have placed on Genealogy. Maybe it made it easier to access historical materials if you were not calling yourself a genealogist?
    What do you think?
    Family History is a relatively small and specific genre of writing, audiences may be as small as a single-family or larger depending on the people that are part of the history. Family histories of famous people, dead or alive, tend to draw larger audiences. Notoriety also helps.
    Genealogy has more press and is presented more often to the public and incorporates Family History in its presentation. People simply do not know or care that there is a difference. TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” exasperate the problem. Experts in writing and genealogy recognize the difference but still refer to it as a part of the genealogical process.
    In today’s world are “genealogy” and “family history” used interchangeably?
    Is there a difference? Should there be a difference?
    Yes, Family History is the writing of history as related to the family and the individual members of the family. Genealogy (base definition) is the process of developing a pedigree or descendancy listing.
    Maybe, Family History would have to break away from genealogy (its fraternal twin) to be recognized on its own merits, but you cannot completely divorce the two. Current practices in the field of genealogy do not separate the two processes as they provide a complete product which the basic information gathering questions.
    Genealogists and Historians use the question of Who, what, where, when, how and why in their approaches to research and writing. The difference is in how they pose the questions. Other differences relate to source analysis and critiquing, size and scope of research, and purpose of research.
    Some current Genealogists are using methods from History and Microhistory to improve both the research conducted and the writing of Family History for genealogical purposes. For now, Genealogy and Family History are and will remain interchangeable
    Which term do you use more often to describe the discovery of one’s ancestors?
    Children seem to grasp the idea of Family History but struggle with the term Genealogy. So, I generally refer to my research as Family History to children and uncomprehending adults while using genealogy when talking to most other people.
    I accept the general notion that the two are not separable, but I am concerned that the influences of Genealogy are too limiting for the full potential that I see in Family History.

    Tom Treadway

  10. Do adopted people track their ancestry or genealogy through their biological parents or their adopted name?

    1. Hi Bruce! Thank you for your question. They can track both family lines if they want to. Others who are part of foster and step families can also research those families too. Thanks for reading the blog!