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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Certain Skills

When I was about 16 years old, I got a construction job working in Tucson, Arizona for the summer. The job site was a high-rise parking garage that was being converted into an office building with an atrium. My job title was that of a "cost engineer."  My actual responsibilities included working from the early afternoon until late at night and monitoring the progress of the work each day. I had to document every change and even the position of each piece of equipment. I was working for the general contractor and the idea was that I was essentially giving the general contractor the information needed to keep the sub-contractors on task and on time.

One thing I remember from that time, besides being alone and on my own for the first time in a strange city, was all the things I had to learn. I was thrown, literally, into a completely new and very unfamiliar environment. One small memory sticks in my mind: I was supposed to keep track of the equipment and was told especially to note the position of the "hop loader." Now, I had no idea what a hop loader was, but was too inexperienced to ask any questions. I wandered around wondering what on earth was a "hop loader." Since I was there on the job long after everyone went home, I had no one to ask even if I had wanted to. The next day, I finally figured out that a "hop loader" was a Hough Loader, a type of front-loader. Here is a photo of this type of equipment:

By MathKnight (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
 OK, so now you are back to the usual question of what does this all have to do with genealogy? The answer is a little bit complex. When we all come to genealogy for the first time, we meet all sorts of "jargon" terms, that is, special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand. I have found that many genealogists can go for long periods of time, even years, before certain terms have any meaning for them. They are symbolically like me, wondering what that means but either being afraid to ask or never finding the right person or time to find out.

In genealogy, as opposed to construction, this lack of understanding of certain terms takes on a whole different dimension: archaic terms, legal terms, governmental terms, all sorts of specialized words and phrases that we encounter as we research documents. When I started law school, more than 42 years ago, I worked at the reference desk in the library. I was very amused that after each class period, there would be a stampede of new law students to the rack of legal dictionaries, trying to understand what the professors had just said. One of the terms I remember causing the most trouble was the term "assumpsit" (which by the way shows up as a mis-spelled word in my browser's dictionary). This turns out to be a very common legal term, even used occasionally today.

Assumpsit is Latin for "he undertook." It is the name of a cause of action based on a defendant's undertaking or promise. But what the experience in Tucson taught me was to find out the meaning of unfamiliar terms before they became an embarrassment and a problem. I find that the same thing applies to genealogy practically every day. So the point is that when we encounter an unfamiliar term, we take the time to determine exactly what it means.

Today, the task of define words and phrases, even archaic ones, is much simpler than it was when I was in high school or even law school. Today, we can copy those words or phrases into a Google search and put the word "define" at the beginning and nearly always get an immediate answer. For example, you type "define assumpsit" and get "Assumpsit was the word always used in pleadings by the plaintiff to set forth the defendant's undertaking or promise, hence the name of the action." Now, that might help you and it might not. You may need to go further and define the remaining terms, depending on your background and experience. In this case, you may need to further define "plaintiff" and "defendant" although those terms are used continually in newscasts and movies.

Genealogy is full of obscure terms and, if we do not define them, we may entirely misunderstand what happened to our ancestors. What if your ancestor was listed as pursuing the "gentle craft?" What did he do exactly? You might be surprised to learn that he was a shoemaker or cobbler. I live with the dictionary by my side, figuratively speaking today, since that dictionary is online and comprehensive. Take the time to look and know before you make all sorts of wrong assumptions (do you see a relationship between the word assumpsit and assumptions?).

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