Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak explains some of the old terms—many of them derived from Latin—that genealogists encounter during their family history research. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.
Throughout history, terms come and terms go—and thankfully for most people, archaic expressions disappear. That is, thankfully for everyone except family historians. We encounter a plethora of long forgotten archaic terms while doing our genealogy research, mostly in what some consider a dead language: Latin!
To be honest, I was never fond of Latin.
I remember a particularly tense parent-teacher conference when I was a girl, during which the teacher implied that I wasn’t well-suited for the subject. My mother, who was then at the height of her passion for genealogy, disagreed—and so I continued studying Latin, under extreme duress.
In later years, I discovered that I shared my mom’s passion for genealogy—and when I started seeing old documents with Latin phrases such Caesar’s “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (“We came, We saw, We conquered”), my early education studying the Latin language started paying off.
So now, I’d like to share some tips for understanding old Latin terms you may encounter in your own genealogy research.
Dates: “Instant,” “Ultimo” and “Proximo”
The three most common old Latin terms for dates are: instant, ultimo, and proximo, which refer to the present month, last month and next month respectively.
- Instant (often abbreviated “inst.”): This term refers to a recent occurrence in the present or current month.
- Ultimo (often abbreviated “ult.”): Ultimo or Ultimo Mense is a Latin term/phrase that refers to an occurrence from the previous month.
- Proximo (often abbreviated “prox.”): Proximo refers to something that will occur next month.
Notice in the following obituary, the death date is reported as “the 29th ultimo.” Since the obit was published on 5 October 1838, this is saying Elizabeth Grady died 29 September 1838.
Genealogy Tip: References should be interpreted as relative, and not exact. Sometimes notices are copied from newspaper to newspaper, and if a notice was republished more than 30 days from its first publication, the interpretation would be incorrect. As a result, always verify death dates with official documents and even tombstones. (See the related Blog article Understanding Terms Found in Historical Newspapers).
Widows and Widowers: “Consort” and “Relict”
Two similar historical Latin terms often found in old obituaries are consort and relict; as noted in the following examples, they tell a researcher specifically if a woman was a widow prior to her death, or if her husband became a widower after she died.
- Consort comes from the Latin word “consortium,” meaning partnership. It indicates that the husband survived the wife (i.e., her death ended the marriage partnership).
Notice in this example, Mrs. Ann Parrott is referred to as the “consort” of Mr. James Parrott.
- Relict is derived from the Latin “relictus” or “relicta,” which translate as widower or widow.
Notice in this newspaper clipping example, Margaret is referred to as the “relict,” or widow, of the late William McCarron.
Genealogy Tip: If a Latin term ends in “us,” then it refers to a male; if it ends in an “a,” it generally refers to a female. For example, “avus” refers to grandfather, “avia” to grandmother, and “avi” is used to indicate grandparents. “Proavus” means great grandfather and “proava” means great grandmother. If you search the Latin word list at Genproxy.co.uk, you’ll notice that Latin even has specific words to specify if someone was a 2nd great grandparent.
Single Status: “Caelebs”
As seen in the previous examples, relationship statuses can be specific in Latin. However, I must give a word of caution—meanings and interpretations change over time.
To illustrate, let’s examine the Latin word caelebs, which is related to the word celibate.
Most genealogy researchers define caelebs as a man who was single—so if you didn’t explore further, you might assume that caelebs indicated someone who had never been married.
However, try entering caelebs into the Perseus Latin Dictionary at Tufts University. Did you see that its definition includes “widower”?
And now search early newspapers for the term. This 1807 newspaper article implies that the definition includes a man (or in the case of caelibia, a woman), in search of a wife.
Another newspaper article, this one from 1977, reports that a 14th century definition for the equivalent of caelebs—bachelor—applied to candidates for knighthood, and those who had earned an academic degree.
Latin Terms Describing Death Status
Legal documentation may include abbreviations regarding the status of a decedent.
Did a person have heirs? Were the children legitimate or illegitimate, and did some or all children die within the lifetime of a parent?
Here is a list of frequently used abbreviations—to understand them better, acquaint yourself with some of the more common terms, such as “decessit” and “obdormio,” which mean died or fell asleep, “legitima” (legitimate), “sine” (without), “matris” and “patris” (mother and father), and “prole” (issue or offspring).
Common Latin Phrase Abbreviations
- aas (anno aetatis suae): died in the year of his/her age
- dsp (decessit sine prole): indicates a person died without issue; i.e., no children
- dspl (decessit sine prole legitima): died without legitimate issue
- dspm (decessit sine prole malus): died without sons
- dspml (decessit sine prole malus legitima): died without legitimate sons
- dspms (decessit sine prole malus suivre): died without surviving sons
- dsps (decessit sine prole suivre): died without surviving issue
- dvm (decessit vita matris): died in the lifetime of the mother
- dvp (decessit vita patris): died in the lifetime of the father
- ob caelebs (obdormio caelebs): died single or as a bachelor
- osp (obiit sine prole): died without issue or children
- q.s. (quod suivre): which follows
- q.v. (quod vide): which see
- sp (sine prole): without issue or children
- spf (sine prole femina): without daughters
- spl (sine prole legitima): without legitimate issue
- spm (since prole mascula): without sons
- sps (sine prole superstite): without surviving issue
- vf (vita fratris): in the lifetime of his brother
- viz (videlicet): namely
- vm (vita matris): in the lifetime of his mother
- vp (vita patris): in the lifetime of his father
- vs (vita sororis): in the lifetime of his sister
Strategies for Translating Latin
With all Latin terms, apply strategies to make sure you interpret a document correctly.
- Read the entire document or article to see if a phrase was reiterated in English.
- Examine the syntax within the presented context.
- See if there is a corresponding or follow-up document to verify information (such as in a probate file).
Also, consult a variety of resources, such as these:
- Genproxy.co.uk’s Simple Latin Terms
- Google’s Translate
- Tufts University’s Latin Dictionary
Do you have a question about a Latin phrase you’ve encountered in your family history research? If so, please ask it in the comments section and we’ll try to answer it for you.
More articles about old terms found in historical newspapers:
- Understanding Terms Found in Historical Newspapers
- Job Names in Historical Newspapers: Researching Old Occupations
- Historical Job Names in Newspapers (Part II)
- Early Women Occupations, Jobs & Avocations
- Old Diseases & Early Medical Terms in Historical Newspapers
- Nautical Terms & Phrases Found in Old Newspapers