Randy's Genealogical Dictionary


Dictionary of Genealogy & Archaic Terms


Last Edited: January 17, 2012

This file contains many of the common "buzzwords", terminology and legal words found in genealogy work. If you think of any words that should be added to this list, please notify Randy Jones.

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1. A female ruler or head = lady, as feminine of lord.
2. [arch.] The mistress of a household.
3. The mistress of a children's school. Obs. 1640
4. At Eton: A matron (also a man) who keeps a boarding house. 1737
5. A form of address: = My lady, Madam: now left to women of lower rank, ME
6. A title given to a woman of rank = Lady, Mistress, Miss; spec. the legal title of the wife of a knight or baronet. Also, fig. as in Dame Nature, etc. ME
7. A woman of rank, a lady. Now hist or poet. 1530 b. spec. The wife of a knight, squire, citizen, yeoman (arch or dial) 1574 {O}
young lady
[Heraldric] a zig-zagged bend  
An English tax, first levied in 991 by Ethelred the Unready in order to buy off the Danish invaders of his kingdom. The tax continued to be imposed long after the Danish invasions had come to an end. Under Edward the Confessor it was temporarily abolished, to be revived by William the Conqueror in 1084 and thenceforward regularly levied on all lands except the royal manors. The usual rate was six shillings on every hide (120 acres) of land. The Danegeld was levied for the last time in 1162. -- E. R. Adair: Danegeld, in: Collier's Encyclopedia; New York, London 1989; vol. 7, p. 701.
The Danelaw was the area of medieval England subject to Danish rather than Mercian or West Saxon law.  Broadly speaking, the Danelaw was the area conquered by the Vikings in the ninth century.  A treaty between King Alfred the Great and the Danish leader, Guthrum, defined a boundary which is roughly the line of the modern A5 between London and Chester, with King Alfred's territories to the south and west, and Guthrum's to the north and east.  This boundary, however, was not stable, and some areas were only briefly under Viking control and show modest signs of their culture.  The Danelaw was a cultural, not a political unit; and its culture was far from uniform. -- Spencer Hines, GEN-MEDIEVAL, 28 Nov 2004  
a coin or weight 1/6 of a dirham or dinar
mud and clay applied over wattle to seal and strengthen it
Documentation of one's death
[Latin, from] Surnames with "de", for example "de Beauchamp", meant that the family was "of the place called Beauchamp". The Beauchamp concerned in this family, was in Normandy, though there are many places in England today, named after the family, not the other way round. The name itself was not a surname, but an identifier name, but it later developed into a surname. -- Renia Simmons (edited)
a church official of rank below priest.  Deacons assist the parish in non-worship responsibilities, including care of the sick and poor, administration of church property, and enforcement of Canon law.  A Deacon generally served as the judge during ecclesiastical court hearings.
[Latin, of the goods not administered] the distribution of property not completed by the first administrator.
the deceased
[Latin] ten
groups of ten individuals.  See also frankpledge.
document filed by an alien in a court of record declaring his intention to apply for citizenship after fulfillment of the residency requirement. It might also be used to refer to an intent to marry, usually filed with the town clerk. 
[Welsh black]. Also as 'Dhu' and 'Dee'.
a document signed, sealed and delivered according to law and conveying title to real estate. See also POLLED DEED, WARRANTY DEED.
a method of selling property. This was the most popular way of conveying land in medieval England, to get around certain requirements imposed on other methods. In Virginia, those requirements did not apply, but old habits die hard. Land in England was originally conveyed by livery of seizin, in which the owner and the purchaser went on or in sight of the land, and the owner gave the purchaser some dirt, or a twig, nail, etc. from the property, in front of witnesses. Originally these transactions were not written down, and there was certainly no place to record them. The witnesses were the proof of the transaction. If the transaction did not take place on the land, the purchaser had to enter the land within a certain amount of time to claim possession ("seizin"). There were many financial requirements associated with land ownership, and many restrictions on its conveyance. A freehold estate was an estate in fee simple or fee tail. In other words, full ownership. An estate for years, for example, was not a freehold estate. To get around some of the problems relating the the ownership of land with a freehold estate, people came up with "uses" in about the 14th century. Before that, A sold to B, and thenceforth B was "seized" with (or had seisin in) the property. He owned it and had possession of it, with all rights to and enjoyment of the property. But with uses, which worked somewhat like trusts, A conveyed to B for the use of C. In this scenario, B had legal title but not the use of the property, while C had equitable title and the use of the land, but not the legal title. This meant that neither B nor C had to pay many of the expenses associated with having seizin in the property. And who lost this money? The Crown. So in addition to other problems that arose with uses, the crown was losing income. Henry VIII caused Parliament to pass the Statute of Uses in 1536, destroying uses (for a while; clever people soon found other avenues, fear not). The statute said that a use was automatically transformed to full legal title, so that if A conveyed to B for the use of C, then by statute B's legal title was destroyed and transmitted to C, who now had legal and equitable title. Before this, people had also been turning to conveyancing by Bargain and Sale. In simple terms, this was a bargain with a PROMISE to sell, and the transaction would be complete when the terms of the bargain were met. You could have an agreement on one date, with actual transfer of payment and property at a later date. In the meantime, the owner had legal title, and the buyer had equitable title. Under the provisions of the Statute of Uses, once the conditions of the bargain were met (in other words, once payment was made) then by statute full title was conveyed to the purchaser, without livery of seizin before witnesses. This would lend itself to secret conveyances. To prevent this, Parliament also passed in 1536 the Statute of Enrollment, which stated that all deeds of Bargain and Sale which involved inheritance or conveyance of freeholds had to be enrolled, or they were ineffective. Agreements regarding non-freehold estates, such as for a term of years, did not have to be enrolled. Many times people did not want to convey by common law (livery of seizin), and did not want to take the trouble to enroll their deeds of Bargain and Sale. So another type of conveyance evolved. Again, this is oversimplified. If A gives B something less than a freehold estate (like a lease for a term of years), then when the term is up, possession will revert to the owner reversion). The lessor (A) could give the reversion to the lessee (B), in an instrument called a release, which means that when B's lease is up, he gets the reversion and is still in possession and owns the property. The important thing about a release was that it could only be given by the person out of possession TO THE PERSON IN POSSESSION, and was an instrument in writing, under seal. Usually when people were making these agreements, they were somewhere other than on the property, and they did not enter the property, which is what was necessary to transfer possession under the common law. So here is how it all tied together after the 1536 Statute of Uses and Statute of Enrolment. The parties signed a Bargain and Sale for a term of years (like a lease for one year), followed by the common law release of the reversion. These are your deeds of lease and release. The lease set up an agreement, in a bargain and sale, for a non-freehold estate. Under the Statute of Uses, B no longer had to actually enter the property to obtain possession (the Statute of Uses would "transfer use into possession"). Now the buyer/lessee was in possession and could receive the reversion from the seller, in the Release, in order to make him the owner of an inheritable estate. He was then the owner, in fee simple, of the propery. -- Thena Jones
In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church contintually contended with aristocratic marriage practices that tended toward endogamy. Roman civil law [which was the code adopted by the early Church] had forbidden marriages within 'four degrees' and had computed degrees by counting from one prospective spouse up to the common ancestor and then down to the other partner. Marriages of first cousins, those between pepople related within four degrees, were therefore forbidden. But in the first half of the ninth century, both the number of forbidden degrees was increased--from four to seven--and the method of calculating degrees was changed. Now, rather than counting up from one spouse to the common ancestor and down to the other, one computed degrees by counting generations back only to the common ancestor. A Christian was supposed to marry outside seven degrees. This could be very difficult because these degrees included not only children, siblings, and cousins, but also in-laws. Besides the natural consanguinity (cognatio naturalis), marriage was also prohibited because of the spiritual one (cognatio spiritualis), ie. that between the baptised and his/her godparents, and because of legal one, ie. that between the adoptee and descendants of the adopters. Relationship via marriage (affinitas) was treated in the same way as consanguinitas and dispensation was never granted in the direct line, eg. father-in-law and daughter-in-law. The barrier of 4th degree set in 1215 remained in force until 1917 when it was changed to 3rd. However, dispensations where seldom refused for 3rd and 4th degree, and it was also possible to obtain it for 2nd degree, eg. uncle and his niece.
[Latin by law]
land possessed by a lord and used by himself (or his direct employees) instead of rented out to tenants. Also known as "in-land".
a polite 19th Century term for "mistress".  it referred to a class of women on the edge of respectable society who were supported by their wealthy lovers
the study of the characteristics of human populations, as size, growth, density, distribution and vital statistics.
a silver penny, abbreviated by the English "d", first issued by the Romans during the Punic Wars, replacing the drachma.  Originally a denarius was worth 10 asses.
a foreigner permitted certain rights of citizenship. In England, they could purchase and own land, but it could not be inherited without a grant from the crown. A denizen also could hold no public or civil office, or be in the military. This policy was carried over into colonial America.
Denization is/was akin to modern naturalization.  An individual born outside England could not claim certain rights under the Common Law unless denizened: a foreign-born woman married to an English-born subject, for example, could not automatically claim the right to dower from her husband's properties unless denizened.  Property tenure could also be difficult for a male because, if born outside England, he would have found it extremely difficult to prove his age according to the requirements of English law--meaning that witnesses from his local community had to be produced and sworn to give evidence that he had been born at a certain date.  --John Carmi Parsons
[Turkish] a levy of Christian boys, who were recruited and trained to be in the Janissaries, the imperial guard
a written testimony by a witness for use in court in his or her absence.
[Celtic] a family group descended from a common great-grandfather.  Land was owned collectively
an immediate or remote offspring.  See also, direct descendent, lineal descendent, collateral descendent, collateral ancestor
report or chart that shows a person and all of their descendants in a graphical format. As opposed to the Modified Register which is more of a narrative report.
a middle eastern ruler
to transmit property by will
1/24 of a cubit
one to whom a devise is made
[Welsh, fat
[Heraldry] Left as seen from the shield's front, but right as seen by the wearer
In linguistics, a diaeresis or dieresis (AE) (from Greek διαιρειν (diaerein), to divide) is the modification of a syllable by distinctly pronouncing one of its vowels. The diacritic mark is composed of two small dots ( ¨ ) placed over a vowel to indicate this modification is also called a diaeresis. In the case of an "i", it replaces the original dot.
[Latin, day]
[Latin, denarius] the unit of currency under the Caliphate until the 12th Century  
In medieval and current times, a unit of Christian church government consisting of a number of parishes, and headed by a bishop.  Formerly, in Roman times, it was a unit of civil government equivalent to a province, within one of the four prefectures, governed by a Prætorian Præfect.  Each of the Roman dioceses governors held the title of vicar.
one who is in an individual's direct line of ascent or descent  
We use the adjective "direct" when we need, because of context, to emphasize that the descent is NOT collateral, otherwise, we use "descendant" unmodified to mean lineal descendant. -- John Stewart Gordon, GEN-MEDIEVAL, 19 Mar 2005  This is synonymous with lineal descendent.
 [Greek, drachma] the unit of currency in the Islamic world from the Mongol conquest
forcible dispossession of real property
[Legal] to seize goods esp. for debt, including non-payment of rent/rates
one entitled to a share in the estate of a person who died intestate (without a will). In 1705 colonial Virginia, division of property amoung children: real property: eldest received all (common law not statute); personal property - equal shares among children. The widow received a share if there were children: real property - 1/3 for life (common law); personal 1/3. If there were no children, the widow received: real property - 1/3 for life (common law); personal - 1/2. In 1705 Virginia passed a statute making it impossible to break an entail without obtaining a special act of the assembly.
an alias given to a family name. Compared to other alias or a.k.a. that are given to one specific person, the dit names are be given to many persons. It seems the usage exists almost only in France, New France and in Scotland where we find clans or septs.
The double-dot over a letter, replacing a double letter combination called an umlaut, German way of writing the word; the ue, oe or ae letter combinations are a way of representing the umlaut in non-Germanic alphabets which lack the umlauts.
[Latin dux - duke] medieval ruler of Venice. The position was elected by the Venetian nobility, although it stayed within a few families.
a cask of 208 gallons  
[Latin dominus - lord]
(1) a Portuguese lord, a very restricted title reserved for relatives of the royal house and the highest rank nobility.  Dom is the only Portuguese title which is inherited by all legitimate children of a male titular.  The female form is Dona.
(2) a Scottish lord, lords in the territorial sense, or else priests.  Usually in charters the Doms were first then the knights, then the others, unless there were clerics with precedence, who went before all. Clerics without precedence, often the lawyer for the deed, went last, but were still Doms. If the Latin word "domini/dominus" PRECEDES a man's name in a medieval English or Scottish record, the word should be rendered in English as "Sir" not "lord."  -- Alex Findlater, GEN-MEDIEVAL, 6 Oct 2006
the Grand or Great Inquest of Survey of lands in England, by William the Conqueror. It gave a census-like description of the realm, with the names of the proprietors and the nature, extent, value, liabilities, etc. of their properties.
a canon or prebendary (literally "cathedral gentleman") -- Peter Stewart
[Latin, lady] the mistress of the family; lady; wife
[Latin, lord] lord or master; used as a form of address when speaking to clergy or educated professionals
[Latin, lord]
an order of friars founded by St. Dominic.  The order emphasized learning and intellectual activity, and thus founded many universities.  Also known as black friars for the color of their habit
[Latin] to master, subdue; home, residence, family
[Latin dominus - lord]  A Spanish lord, a Don/Doņa is a social distinction suitable for all nobility but also to army officers, bachelors, rich merchants, etc.
[Latin dominus - lord] a Portuguese lady, a very restricted title reserved for relatives of the royal house and the highest rank nobility.  Dona (without tilde) is the only Portuguese title which is inherited by all legitimate children of a male titular.  The male form is Dom.
[Latin dominus - lord]  A Spanish lady, a Don/Doņa is a social distinction suitable for all nobility but also to army officers, bachelors, rich merchants, etc.
[archaic] young lord, the male equivalent of damselle
judgments of a manorial court
cousins by virtue that both sets of grandparents are cousins
an unmarried mistress of a beggar or rogue.
a widow who holds title or property derived from her dead husband
the part of interest of a deceased man's real estate allotted by law to his widow. If unspecified, typically the widow was entitled at least to a third of the estate, and perhaps even a life interest in the rest of the estate. Since the wife received this entitlement under common law, she was required to approve any sale of property purchased during the marriage under her right of dower, although this was frequently overlooked during colonial times. Do not confuse this with DOWRY (q.v.).
a pre-mortem inheritance, either full or partial, given to a daughter at the time of marriage, and is a direct expression of a family's honor, where practiced.  Do not confuse this with DOWER (q.v.)
the principle coin of ancient Greece
one who bought and sold cloth of all kinds, and may even have  participated in the dyeing of the clothe.
[Old English taken] as part of an execution, to be dragged to the hanging behind horsetail, a very low form of corporeal punishment. Chief Justice Edward Coke described it as: "To be drawn to the place of execution from his prison, as being not worthy any more to tread upon the face of earth whereof he was made. Also, for that he hath been retrograde to nature, therefore is he drawn backward at a horse-tail. And whereas God hath made the head of man the highest and most supreme part, as being his chief grace and ornament, he must be drawn with his head declining downward and lying so near the ground as may be, being thought unfit to take benefit of the common air. " -- Catherine Drinker Bowen, The Lion and the Throne, The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke. (1552-1634) (Boston, 1956), 258-259.
The capital punishment until 1870 in Britain was to be drawn, or dragged, on a hurdle at horsetail to his place of execution and hanged on a gibbet, but not till dead. He was then suspended on a hook, disemboweled while still alive, beheaded and quartered. Until 1790 when they too were hanged, women were burnt after being drawn. Again, as described by Chief Justice Edward Coke: "For which cause also he shall be strangled, being hanged up by the neck between heaven and earth as deemed unworthy of both or either; as likewise, that the eyes of men may behold and their hearts contemn him. Then he to be cut down alive, and have his privy parts cut off and burnt before his face as being unworthily begotten and unfit to leave any generation after him. His bowels and inlay'd parts taken out and burnt, who inwardly had conceived and harbored such horrible treason. After, to have his head cut off, which had imagined the mischief. And lastly, his body to be quartered and the quarters set up in some high and eminent place, to the view and detestation of men, and to become a prey for the fowls of the air." -- Catherine Drinker Bowen, The Lion And The Throne, The Life And Times Of Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) (Boston, 1956), 258-259.
a peasant tenant of Northumberland, York, or Lancaster, England, whose land is held for military service
payment due to a lord from his tenant for ale
congestive heart failure
one who drives sheep, cattle or horses on foot to market
a commercial traveler or salesman who sometimes used a drum to attract attention to his wares.
[Anglo-Saxon] warlord
[Latin dessus sine prole] died without offspring  
the territory ruled by a duke (see below, and also DUKEDOM).  In England, there currently are only two duchies -- Lancaster and Cornwall.
[Anglo-Saxon] a proven warrior
[Latin dux, duxoris] a title dating to Roman times, where for the Latins and the Byzantines, a duke was the principal military administrator of a provincial area.  There were 12 dukes in the West and 13 in the East.  Later, the only dukes in the Empire before the 12th century were the "Stamme" dukes, the tribal leaders who were Christian stand-ins for pre-Christian or pre-Imperial Kings. There were very few of them: Bavaria, Saxony, Carinthia (occasionally), Franconia, Swabia, and Upper and Lower Lotharingia. All these places except Carinthia were understood to have been kingdoms at one time; their deity-descended royal families had died out (or been conquered and replaced), and so the ruler was called duke, which in both Latin and Germanic forms signifies "war-leader". New dukedoms could not be created by the Emperor, though rival claimants could be appointed -- thus the Zharingens were appointed Dukes of Swabia and, on losing their claim, began to call themselves Dukes of Zahringen instead, though this was never a created title. In time, it was more or less recognized until the line died out. (Their cousins of Baden never claimed a higher title than Margrave until Napoleon made them Grand Dukes.) This was also true in France, where Burgundy, Brittany (intermittently), Gascony-Guienne and Aquitaine were the only ducal titles, because they were former kingdoms. Normandy only very slowly became a dukedom, as its Counts asserted greater and greater independent authority over a Norman "tribe" in the region. Before William II (the Conqueror), no Count of Rouen was invariably called a duke. Insecure, perhaps, due to the experiences of his youth, William insisted on Duke until he became a King. No French King "created" a Dukedom until John II did so for his younger sons and a cousin. No non-royal Dukedom was created until Francois I did so for his mistress, the Duchess d'Etampes. (Unless you count Cesare Borgia, Duc de Valentinois.) Edward III of England followed John's fashion and created the first English Dukes, but only for three of his sons. His grandson Richard II was generally ridiculed for expanding the number. The Scots imitated the English. The various Spanish Kings also imitated France, at the same time. No Emperor in Germany ever created a dukedom until Frederick I's "Privilegium Minus" granted the title to his uncle, Henry Jasomirgott of Austria. Henry had been Duke of Bavaria and had given that up at Frederick's behest, to make peace with its old heirs, the Welfs. He did not care to give up the title duke once he had held it for mere Margrave of Austria and Count of Babenberg, so Frederick had him promoted. His cousins of Styria followed suit. The next dukedoms were Brunswick and Luneburg, promoted from mere Counties by Frederick II to make peace with the Guelfs, who had been deprived of Saxony and Bavaria by Frederick I. dukes were under-kings and magnates. Dukes always outranked counts when ranks were in existence, but there were always certain Counts (the great ones were Counts of a March, or Margraves) who outranked certain dukes until the rankings were standardized. -- Jean Coeur de Lapin (edited)
the honor of a Duke, conferring privilege, rank and prestige, but necessarily signifying a territory, as does a Duchy (q.v.).
[Scottish] hill fort
[Latin] two
imposed taxes on an item when passed through a port of entry
[Latin] duke, originally in late Roman and medieval times, a war leader or general.  See DUKE.

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J
K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


{A}The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright Š 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

{B} Black's Law Dictionary, 6th Edition

{D} Dictionary.com

{E} Evans, Barbara Jean. The New A to Zax

{F}The Dictionary of Genealogy by Terrick V H Fitzhugh

{H} History of the Later Roman Empire,  Vol.1, J.B. Bury, 1958.

{O}The Oxford English Dictionary

{P} Pepys' diary

{R} Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006)

{Q} Hinshaw, William Wade, "Encyclopedia of America Quaker Genealogy," (1938, Rpt., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994)

{W} Webster's Collegiate Dictionary; Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, Š 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.


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