Using words, even simple ones that make perfect sense to you, can often have unintended consequences. Just ask Kelly Moore.
Moore, who blogs for my local newspaper, wrote a cute little post about her kids playing in the mud and innocently identifying themselves as “mud people.” When readers pointed out that those words were formerly used as a denigrating racial term, Moore responded that she’s certain her 4-year-old didn’t mean them that way.
The lesson here is that words and their meanings change over time. This is important when doing family history work because of the risk of misinterpreting what you are hearing or reading.
For instance, my father-in-law was fond of the word rompers. He wasn’t referring to people having fun or kids scurrying about. He was describing what most of us would call pants, trousers or slacks. Or knickers. Or britches. Or probably dozens of other terms that I’m unfamiliar with.
Slang is a particular problem. I’ve heard police referred to as cops, fuzz, bulls and "the man" but the list of synonyms for police is much longer than that.
Genealogically speaking, the waters are even murkier. Cousin often meant niece or nephew to past generations and the term Mrs. often referred to social – not marital – status. Afflictions of the past are also often known by different names today.
Keep this in mind when evaluating information of your ancestors. Are you sure you know what their words actually mean?
Writing prompt of the day: Make a list of ambiguous or unusual words you’ve found in your family history research and verify that you’ve interpreted them properly.
Photo: John Hayes relaxes in his rompers. (Rose Hayes collection)