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

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thoughts on legal terms for genealogists

Every profession from time immemorial has had its own jargon or special language. The legal profession is known for its sometimes impenetrable terminology, but if looked at from within the profession, all of these obscure terms seem normal and quite common. Genealogists are in the position of examining legal documents for information about ancestors and by force, must come to terms with the full brunt of legal jargon. Although there are those researchers who assiduously avoid confronting this inevitability, their research suffers from the consequences. It is a good idea to start learning some of the basics so that you can read an old will or deed and understand who gave what and who got what.

The basic reference work for all attorneys is Black's Law Dictionary. It may be tedious but it is sometimes necessary to proceed word-by-word through a document to understand exactly what it is and what it does. No one is born speaking legalese and every attorney started in the same way, learning the meanings of the words, one-by-one. Here is an example of a will from the 1700s. This particular will is that of George Washington. This is a copy of the first page:

The interesting thing about this will is that some of the same terms and language are in use today. Here is part of the text of the will on the first page:
In the name of God amen I George Washington of Mount Vernon—a citizen of the United States, and lately Prident of the same, do make, ordai and declare this Instrument; wh is written with my own hand d every page thereof subscribed h my name, to be my last Will & tament, revoking all others. 
mprimus. All my ts, of which there are but few, and none of magnitude, are to be punctuly and speedily paid—and the Legacireinafter bequeathed, are to be discrged as soon as circumstances will rmit, and in the manner directe
tem. To my dearlloved wife Martha Washington give and bequeath the use, profit d benefit of my whole Estate, real and psonal, for the term of her natural li—except such parts thereof as are spcifically disposed of hereafter: mproved lot in the Town of Alex Pitt & Cameron give to her and> her heirs forev1 as I also do my> household & Kitc furniture of every sort & kind, with the liquors and groceries which may be on hand at the time of my decease; to be used & disposed of as she may think proper.
I have marked in bold the words that could appear in a will written today. There are movements from time to time to update the language used in wills but the problem is that all of the court cases concerning wills and trusts is based on the old wording and so if the words are changed, all of the terms would have to be litigated again. 

Almost all other formal legal documents have the same conservative wording style despite constant attempts to update the language. I guess the consolation is that if you learn the old language, you will have no trouble understanding your own will. 


  1. We've been reading ancestors wills from the early 1700 to the 1800's and they basically have stayed the same, as you have said. The opening may be different depending on the testator's religious beliefs. You may find children and in-laws on these as well as friends...very beneficial.
    It's worth learning the legalese! By the way can you tell us what the mprimus means.
    Thank you for this blog!

    1. Yes, the word is imprimis or imprimus and means "In the first place..." Thanks for your comment. Much of the first page of the documents has been lost over time.