"My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead, and that's just the way I like it!"

By: Rob Burt

Anyone who has seen Grandpa Ed talk about the good ol' days realizes that going into the past is like visiting a foreign country: they both speak totally different languages!

Just as today, language in the past had its own slang, meanings, and expressions that can mean something totally different than what we understand a word to mean today. For example, take the word villain. Today we understand that word to mean an evil individual. However, its original meaning from the middle ages meant a poor individual who worked on a farm.

When reading journals, or doing family history research, it is a good idea to locate a dictionary from the time period in order to understand the language our ancestors were speaking. Another good option is the Oxford English Dictionary, which records how words and their meanings have changed over time.

So don't get in a hurly-burly if you can't understand your ancestors' language. Everything will be roses, just find the nearest period lexicon and peruse away!

Tell us, what are some of the documents you've had to decipher or translate. Have you found any strange words that meant something different than you expected?


Jean-Fran├žois de Buren | August 16, 2010 at 10:35 PM

My funny moment happened during my translation of the great-great-grandfather's travel journal through the Americas of the 1850s. He used the word "incontinent" in talking about a trip and I did a double take. I re-read the handwriting again and again, and I kept coming back to the same word. After doing some research, he was not talking about incontinence, but rather about making haste. He was saying that he was eager to start the next leg of his journey.

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