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

Sunday, September 22, 2013

United States vs. USA - Tradition or Covention?

Tradition can be a hard taskmaster. Conventions, not like gatherings but about ways to do things, are a little less imposing but none the less help to give consistency and structure to our lives as genealogists. One of the more common genealogical conventions came up this past week a number of times: do we use United States (spelled out) or USA or even U.S.A.? In the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye has a monologue about tradition where he says "You may ask how did this
tradition start. I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition." So do we make a choices about formatting genealogical records based on some tradition for which we have long forgotten the origin?

Aren't we really talking about standards rather than tradition? Is there really any reason to choose United States over USA? Is there really any reason to capitalize surnames, or put commas between the place names, or put place names in order by the size of the jurisdiction? Are there reasons for these conventions or traditions or whatever, or are they just traditions?

Almost all these style conventions date back to the days of paper forms. The issues were consistency and putting long individual names and place names into arbitrarily short spaces on standardized forms. Why did the forms have arbitrarily small spaces for names, dates and places? Tradition. Why did we want all of the information on one side of one sheet of paper? Who knows? It is true, that some of the traditional rules were made up to address problems, such as quickly identifying the surname, that only applied because of the confusion over two conflicting conventions: do you put the surname first or do you record the names as they are spoken?

In today's world, with computers and almost unlimited space for any entry, most of these issues are meaningless. Additionally, because of the international nature of genealogy and the need to reflect the conventions of a vastly larger audience from different cultures with their own conventions, we have assumed some conventions that are somewhat arbitrary. Are these standards? Is there someone out there mandating all of the ways we do things? That is an issue that has been much discussed lately and will continue to be. Some of the issues, such as some sort of standardization on names, are a long way from being resolved by the community at large, so why do we even care if someone wants to use United States versus using USA or whatever? Why bother to have standardized place names or any other standard for that matter?

For some of these issues, particularly the United States vs. USA issue, the answer seems to be arbitrary. But if you have a little bit of experience and that experience goes back about 30 or so years, you remember those paper forms and the lists of acceptable abbreviations. Genealogists certainly did not start the abbreviation process, they are as old as writing itself. If you would like to see the scope of the challenge of abbreviations look at RootsWeb's "Abbreviations Found in Genealogy." I can assure you that even that extensive list is not complete. Handwritten manuscripts are full of abbreviations, some conventions and some made up on the spot by the person recording the information. When viewed in this light, the United States vs. USA issue becomes an issue dating back to whether or not to use an abbreviation.

Computers have, for the most part, eliminated any practical need for abbreviations. Despite that fact, there is still the issue of tradition. Do we still write names such as "Dr. George W. Smith, Jr." or not? This is only one of the problems I ran into this week. I had this as what was recorded in a family tree (I changed the name of course of this example): "George W. Jr. Smith" and I indicated to the person that placing the Jr. in the middle of the name was very confusing. So she wrote George W. Smith Jr. I asked her what the "W." meant and she said she had no idea. At that point the number of issues was so great and her experience so limited, that I abandoned any more discussion on that point. Obviously, that interchange brought up another issue. Do we make such a big deal over traditions and conventions as to make genealogy seem formalistic and arbitrary? Do we really care what the ancestor's middle name was in reality? Do we really care that the "Junior" part of the name, at the time, may not have meant what we commonly mean it to mean today? Or that the "Junior" may not have been part of the name at all but merely a way to differentiate between two individuals who may not have even been related?

Some of those issues, such as identifying middle names, go way beyond arbitrary convention as does the issue of adding Junior or Jr. or whatever to a name, but they are still issues none-the-less.

Another question is do we look carefully at the "Preferences" presented to us by our genealogy database programs? Don't we still see a number of available options in many of the programs that will let us have all capital letters for surnames and offer a variety of date formats etc? Why are all these choices still being used in this age of standardization and computerization?

OK, so which is it? United States or USA? Do you think I really care?

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