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

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Understanding the Jargon of Genealogy

I was helping a friend with setting up her iMac computer yesterday for genealogy and she said something that caught my attention. She said, "I have to learn what all the genealogy terms mean." That brought home a common problem with all specializations; learning the jargon.

Jargon is a really a technical term I became acquainted with during my graduate studies in Linguistics at the University of Utah. It is defined as special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand. The main problem with jargon is that we often do not even know we are using it.

Take for example, the word "genealogy" itself, as in "I am doing my genealogy" or "I am working on my genealogy." What does that statement communicate to a non-genealogist? And sometimes we wonder why we get blank stares. The challenge is that there is really no way to avoid jargon. It is present in every (I mean every) activity and profession and interest in the entire world from skydiving to sewing. Every human activity has its own special set of insider terms.

Jargon can be very exclusionary. If you are the outsider, trying to understand what the "insiders" are talking about can be a formidable challenge. An extreme type of jargon is called an argot. Sometimes the word argot is associated with criminal activities so using the word jargon is more appropriate. Usually term "argot" is used to identify an extreme jargon specifically designed to exclude outsiders. What is more difficult is that the people who are using the jargon are usually not even aware that they are using specialized words and terminology.

I have noticed that many people who are new to genealogy are put off immediately by genealogists using terms they don't immediately understand. For example, they are asked if they have a pedigree chart or family group record. Although these terms seem so simple and fundamental, they are in fact very specialized uses of common words. If you add in the jargon associated with computers and computer use, coming into the world of genealogy can be formidable.

By the way, it often doesn't help to try to explain or define our "jargon" terms because we end up using even more jargon to define the terms. I suggest that when you are talking to non-genealogists, you think carefully about the terms you are using and ask frequent questions to see if those you are speaking to understand what you are saying.


  1. Better words for Pedigree Chart, in my opinion, is an Ancestor Chart which is their road map to their direct line ancestor. This is the way I do it to a class of beginners.

  2. I would suggest jargon really began in genealogy or family history with the advent of computer use.
    Pedigree is certainly not jargon as any farming community (as most early communities were in the UK and USA)would recognise and understand the term.
    Perhaps those from more industrial communities may have lost the understanding of the term but that does not make it jargon.