Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, October 4, 2012


If you have done genealogy for any time at all you have probably run across something that looked sort-of like this:

John DOE, b. abt. 1895, Phx. Mrcp. Az. d. abt. 1945, Bbnk, LA, CA.

Translated, this likely means

John Doe, born about 1895 in Phoenix, Maricopa, Arizona. Died about 1945 in Burbank, Los Angeles, California.

Now, which one make more sense?

Abbreviations are a outmoded remnant of paper genealogy. When genealogists were using paper forms, it is obvious that the space provided for entering information on a printed family group record or pedigree chart was entirely inadequate. So the standard way to show all of the geographical subdivisions of a location was to abbreviate the names of the places. By analogy, again entirely due to the limited space of the form, dates and other information was also abbreviated. Unfortunately, when computers were first used to transcribe the paper forms, some of the early programs had the same limitations as the paper forms. Data entry spaces were often limited to 16 or 32 characters. Sometimes even the abbreviated form of the information would not fit.

Now what is the problem? Many of these abbreviations survive in online and personal databases. They are absolutely no longer necessary. The spaces for data entry today are more than adequate to take the entire name of the location, no matter how long or how many levels. I am not talking here about standardized place names, I am saying stop using abbreviations. Convert all abbreviated names to full names. Convert all place names to as much information as is needed.

This problem is more extensive than simply a transition from paper to computer, it has existed for centuries. Many early entries in parish registers and other similar documents used abbreviations. For example, Wm. for William and Thos. for Thomas. These designations are a completely different challenge. You cannot automatically expand the abbreviated form unless you have some other documentation that shows what the expanded name actually was. It is not good genealogical practice to assume information that does not exist. Your assumption may be wrong. The name should be recorded just as it appears, but the existence of an abbreviation is an open invitation to do more research to determine the correct expanded version of the name. Many times, using the abbreviation is an excuse for lack of further effort. Copying an abbreviation from someone else, without doing your own research is also unacceptable. It is always a better practice to try and find a document or other source to expand the name.

There are lists of early abbreviations online and in print that give you the expanded equivalent of the early practices. These may be helpful but also the individual who originally made the abbreviation may not have known what was standard and made up the abbreviation. Again, collateral evidence of the expanded name is desirable. If, in the end, after a reasonably exhaustive search, all you can find is an abbreviated entry, then report it, with the source as it appears in the record. Don't just assume you know what the expanded version is autormatically.

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