Confusing Situations Word Definitions and Surnames (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Confusing Situations...

Ask lots of questions when you do your research, and don’t be shy, the more you know, the more it will make sense. You may not already know certain odd practices and social peculiarities of different time periods.

Meaning of Words

Let’s start with the confusion surrounding the use of words. The language and use of language has changed over the years. Some words you will simply assume have the same meaning as today. Sometimes, unfortunately, you will miss interesting information simply because of these assumptions.

Let’s look at an example. If you read that your ancestor was transported to America on a ship arriving July 9, 1754, you would probably simply record that information and not think anything of it. But the word “transported” had a different meaning than that of simply how he was relocated. Transported meant banished or deported. Naturally, the next thing you would want to find out is why was your ancestor banished or deported. Keep in mind that crimes in those days were not necessarily like the crimes of today. Someone could be deported simply because he stole a chicken or maybe your ancestor just cut down a tree on a public avenue. So you see, knowledge of a word will add a different historical meaning to your puzzle. So think about what you are reading and ask questions.

A more serious problem though is misinterpreting your information by not knowing about the change in the meaning of certain words. It is one thing to simply go without an interesting fact, but it is quite different to be led down the wrong path. So let’s look at a few words.

Simple words like mother, father, son and daughter. Often you’ll hear someone call their mother-in-law mother or a stepson is often called a son. These words are used as terms of endearment. Previous generations did likewise. I can’t tell you when a father may be a stepfather or when a son is really a son-in-law. However, I can warn you to be aware that this happens, so if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you may need to interpret these words differently. The same applies to words like brother and sister, often a very good friend or a step or half-brother will be referred to as a brother.

The meanings of these words have not really changed, grandparents are the parents of our parents, great-grandparents are the parents of our grandparents, then we have second-great- grandparents and so on. Uncles and aunts are the brothers and sisters of our parents. Grand-uncles and grand-aunts are the brothers and sisters of our grandparents. Next are great-grand uncles and aunts and so on.

The word cousin, however, was often used to refer to any family relationship other than the ones I’ve just mentioned. A cousin could have been a niece or a nephew or even a grandchild.

And while we are on the subject of cousins, do you know what a cousin once removed means or a kissing cousin? First cousins have the same grandparents, second cousins have the same great-grandparents, and so on.

A cousin of your father or mother is your first cousin once removed. The child of your first cousin once removed is your second cousin. In other words, a cousin once removed can be a parent’s cousin or your cousin’s child.

And finally the expression Kissing Cousin can be used for any relative more distant than a first cousin. Are you more confused now?

The term in-law was used for any new relationship which came about because of marriage. The son of a new spouse could be referred to as son-in-law. Today we would call him a stepson. A woman’s father-in-law might be her husband’s father or her stepfather.

Half-brothers or half-sisters are two individuals having one member of an ancestral couple in common. In other words, half-brothers may have the same mother but a different father.

Stepbrothers or stepsisters are two individuals with no ancestral ties but where one member of the couple is the ancestor of one individual and the other member of the same couple is the ancestor of the other individual. In other words stepbrothers would have neither the same mother nor father, but the mother of one and the father of the other are married.

The word nephew was used generally the same as today, but in old records it could also mean the daughter of your brother or sister now referred to as a niece. Nephew was also used to mean grandson or granddaughter.

Kinsman was a blood relative by marriage.

The title Mr. was only added to someone of a higher rank in a place location, especially one who was descended from a family whose income came from the rental of land. Mr. was also added to the names of those who held a high civil office or to the names of members of the clergy.

The title Mrs. is the feminine equivalent of Mr. and should not only be assumed to be the marital status of a woman.

The title Sir denoted a baronet, a knight or in (early times) a cleric.

In many small communities, there were frequently people of the same name. In this situation, the community would give the word Junior, Senior, the 3rd or the 4th to people of the same name.

When someone with one of these designations died or moved away, the order would often change appropriately. The use of Junior and Senior was not necessarily intended for a father and son relationship, these words were used even though no relationship existed. They were used simply to identify people of common names.

A minor was one under 21 but over 7. An infant was usually under 8, but sometimes referred to those under 21.

There was a series of words that were used to indicate the social standing or the actual rank a person had in a community. So the highest standing person was referred to as a gentleman, then a goodman, followed by a freeman and ending with an indentured servant.

Gentleman referred to a man of gentle birth and social position, one whose income came from the rental of his land. A gentleman was a member of the landed gentry. If the son of a gentleman left his home to take up a trade, then he lost his title. But if he left his home but continued receiving his income from the rental of his land then he retained his title.

A goodman was well respected and a substantial member of the community. A goodman’s wife was referred to as a goodwife and often this was abbreviated to goody.

The word freeman has had several meanings. In colonial North America it meant a man could vote or enter into business arrangements: holding the full rights of citizenship. It can also be found as applied to manumitted slaves. The word could also mean one who has served his apprenticeship and is thus free to pursue his trade (as in freedom of the trade guild or company, and having the freedom of the town in which he resided). In medieval England it also applied to a feudal tenant who paid rent with no obligation of services.

Finally, there were many people who didn’t have the money required to make the voyage or to support themselves in the new world. In exchange for financial help, they would enter into an agreement with someone to work for them for a specified period of time. Many chose this lifestyle simply to have the opportunity to establish a new life. These people were referred to as indentured servants. They had no rights to vote or enter into any business agreements until their agreed-upon time had passed, when they became a freeman.


You may assume that everyone with your same last name is related to you. This isn’t the case. Surnames did not exist before the 14th century and in France before the 10th century. People were referred to by something unique to them, their occupation or a location where they lived or where they came from. For example, if you lived on the hill near the church, you might be called George of the church hill. Or if you were a baker you might be called George the baker. As the population grew, this became very confusing. So the words of and the were dropped and you would have become George Churchill or George Baker. Many European names were simplified by immigrants, so they could be more easily pronounced by North Americans; George Baker may have become Georges Boulanger in French settlements.

Dit Names

A common practice in Québec was the dit  names. This was adding another name to the original surname. These then became official surnames. They disappeared at the beginning of the 20th century after existing for two centuries.

The dit identified the name of the country, city, town, French province or parish the individual came from: Daigle dit l’Allemand was someone from Germany.

Dit names were often derived from the first name: descendants of Germain Gauthier had the surname Gauthier dit St Germain. Short first and last names were often joined: descendants of Gaston Guay had the surname Guay dit Gastonguay. Mothers’ names were often added as dit  names; soldiers added their nom de guerre  from their regiments.

Individuals could use the combined name or either names, as they wished. Large genealogical dictionaries for Québec have lists of surnames and other names that should be verified. The book "Répertoire des noms de famille du Québec" by René Jetté, is ideal to check what other names may be attached to the name you are researching for your French ancestry.

Spelling of Names

Another confusing situation is the spelling of names. You can find brothers and sisters who have surnames spelt differently. This was common in the days when most people didn’t read or write. Clergymen often recorded the name as it sounded. And if a clergyman came from a different linguistic background, he could spell it with his own ethnic flair.

First names pose a different problem. Sometimes, just like today, our ancestors didn’t like their given name, so they would be called by their middle name or a nickname. So birth or baptismal certificates are a good confirmation of the original given name.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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