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Article posted: September 03, 1999

Unknown Language in Genealogy
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles

A common problem for genealogists is encountering words we do not understand.

Old documents are full of words which may have some legal meaning, or were common at the time and unknown now. Recently a friend sent me a couple of quotations from a will of 1771 wondering what some of the terms meant.

The man left 'one tea kettle and two brandizes.' A brandize, it turns out, is a trivet. When I discovered this, my office mate said, "So what's a trivet?" It's something for the table on which you put hot things (like kettles) to prevent scorching. Back in the days when kettles were heated over an open fire, brandizes (or trivets) were essential.

The same will included references to Weal Wens, Wheel Reeth, Wheal Margarett and Weal Margery. These are references to tin mines, a weal being a dig or mine site. The fact that the word is spelled three different ways in the same paragraph shows the situation regarding standardized spelling in 1771.

The meanings for both these old words was found in a good dictionary. I came up with 'brandize' in the big desk Webster's at our reference desk, while 'weal' required the full Oxford English Dictionary. If you come up against words you don't know in your documents, try the dictionary first, always keeping in mind that the full multivolume OED (as the Oxford English is known) will contain the more unusual items.

There are also a good number of specialized dictionaries. For genealogy in general Terrick FitzHugh's A Dictionary of Genealogy is a good start. Perhaps the most useful other one is The Dictionary of Old Trades and Occupations, by Andrew and Sandra Twining (1995). The census and church records often contain references to occupations which leave us wondering, and the Twinings' book will solve the problem. I always thought a cordwainer was somebody who dealt in rope until I finally sorted out that he was a shoemaker. This is useful knowledge since I have recently found several generations of shoemakers in one branch of my family.

But sometimes the old documents will defeat us. The same 1771 will made a reference to a 'tertain attorney' who was owed some money. We were unable to decide who this was, even using a legal dictionary. Someone suggested that perhaps the word was misspelled in some way. Perhaps a learned judge will read this column and enlighten everyone.

Geographical websites: While searching for a local history book from Parry Sound District recently, I found a find website for Seguin township ( which included a fine map of the area and details about businesses and local government there. It made me wonder if more municipal governments or chambers of commerce would be creating websites which genealogists could use to find out about places they did not know. I think they will. Keep this in mind next time you feel like surfing the net, and see if the local authorities in your ancestors' home town have posted something worth your attention.

Fall conference: The British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa is holding its annual conference on 24-26 September at the National Library. The keynote speaker will be Kyle Betit, co-editor of The Irish At Home and Abroad, a hugely successful international magazine. The emphasis is on Ireland, with Betit lecturing on resources in Ireland, and Marianna O'Gallagher and Gary Schroder talking about the Irish in Quebec. Mary Bond, reference librarian at the National Library, will talk about research there and conduct a tour of their resources. As well there will be book sales and demonstrations of genealogical software. For details, see the BIFHSGO home page at

Some Supporting Hot Links From The Editor...

I've added these hot links to Ryan's column... think you will find them helpful:

Want to know about occupations and other descriptions found in census records and elsewhere:

Look up 103,100 acronyms/abbreviations & their meanings:

The link for Ranks, Professions, Occupations and Trades:

The A-Z of English Genealogy research will also help to clarify many terms used in earlier periods not only found in English records. Visit the A-Z of British Genealogical Research - in particular the abbreviations section at:

To begin to search for Ontario Municipal information and links to communities across the province visit:


and don't forget to look under travel and tourism information sites for an area of interest at:

Books By Ryan Taylor

Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.

Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997

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