Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena discusses several different types of dictionaries, providing links to online versions – and shows how they can help with your family history research.
Have you ever started reading an old document or newspaper article about your ancestor and come across a word that made you scratch your head? Maybe there was a phrase your ancestor used in a piece of correspondence or their journal that you are curious about. I know there have been times when I come across an unfamiliar term – or even something I didn’t recognize as a word – and wondered what it meant. Words and their meanings from a different era can make understanding context difficult, and can lead you to make bad assumptions and wrong conclusions. It’s at times like these that you need to “look it up!” and break out some dictionaries.
What dictionary might help? You’d be surprised at all the different types of dictionaries that exist that can help the family historian. You may be able to pick one up inexpensively at a library book sale or used book store – or there may be a free online version.
Did your ancestor die of the grippe or maybe ague? What’s a myocardial infarction? Having a good medical dictionary at your disposal can help you better understand your ancestor’s ailments and ultimately their death certificate.
Medical terminology, like language itself, changes over time. So having access to definitions of archaic medical terms is very helpful.
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms: A Glossary of Archaic Medical Terms, Diseases and Causes of Death is a great resource for looking up causes of death on death certificates. This website defines itself as: “a collection of archaic medical terms and their old and modern definitions. The primary focus of this web site is to help decipher the Causes of Death found on Mortality Lists, Certificates of Death and Church Death Records from the 19th century and earlier.” What is great about the site are the entries that include a copy of a death certificate so that you can compare the writing. While there’s a benefit to using the online version, for the most up-to-date entries, you can download a copy of the glossary for a small fee.
Links to other websites that explain medical terms can be found on Cyndi’s List – Medical & Medicine – Diseases & Medical Terms.
For the non-attorney, legal jargon found in the court cases of our ancestors can be challenging at best. I’ve had times where I wish I could call a lawyer and ask them to sit with me and explain some concepts so that I could better evaluate what a case was really about. A legal dictionary can assist you at times when you’re trying to make sense of the world your ancestor lived in. The Law Dictionary is an online version of Black’s Law Dictionary, a dictionary everyone should refer to for better understanding of legal terms.
The Georgetown Law Library Digital Dictionaries: 1481-1916 provides access to a wide variety of legal dictionaries that can be browsed or searched.
Some of my favorite dictionaries are slang dictionaries. I know it’s easy to hear the phrase “slang dictionary” and discount it as something that is too modern to be of use when researching your family history. However, slang dictionaries have been around since the 17th century and are an excellent resource for learning about the common word usage of a particular era and how the meanings of some words have changed over time. A slang dictionary is the perfect resource to better understand early correspondence or journal entries. This type of dictionary can assist you as you read newspaper articles that utilize verbiage from a different time. It can also help when you’re writing the story of your great-grandparents and want to use language and phrases from their time period.
Like any dictionary, a slang dictionary can be found online and in your favorite bookstore. Digitized book websites house various reference tools including slang dictionaries. Internet Archive has the 1909 text Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase, and the 1912 work A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English.
Slang dictionaries from the 19th century can also be found on Google Books.
Military dictionaries exist online and in physical book form. The DOD Dictionary of Military Terms can be browed or searched online as well as downloaded. It’s a great resource if you need to know what a beach party is or a Presidential Call-up.
The Oxford Essential Dictionary of the U.S. Military has a website with an index to entries. You can browse the index, but need a subscription to look at definitions.
Dictionaries for specific military conflicts include the Historical Dictionary of the Korean War by Paul M. Edwards, the Historical Dictionary of the Spanish-American War by Donald H. Dyal, and the Historical Dictionary of World War I by Ian V. Hogg.
What dictionaries are on your bookshelf? Start your own reference collection for your personal library to help with your family history research for a better understanding your ancestors and the times they lived in.