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

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Are we victims of genealogical doublespeak?

Wikipedia explains the meaning of "doublespeak" as follows:
Doublespeak is language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms (e.g., "downsizing" for layoffs, "servicing the target" for bombing[1]), in which case it is primarily meant to make the truth sound more palatable. It may also refer to intentional ambiguity in language or to actual inversions of meaning (for example, naming a state of war "peace"). In such cases, doublespeak disguises the nature of the truth. Doublespeak is most closely associated with political language.
This post was prompted by an interchange of comments on one of my last posts about "Am I a genealogist or a family historian?" Guy Etchells made the comment as follows:
A genealogist compiles a pedigree of the family, a family historian complies a history of the family. 
In other words the genealogist provides the skeleton whilst the family historian goes further and seeks the historic details of members of that family and how they interact with the society they live in (i.e. they put the meat on the skeleton).
To which Adrian Bruce made the following comment:
Firstly, everything the genealogist does, has to be done by the family historian - Guy said "the family historian goes further and seeks", not "instead of that, the family historian seeks". 
Secondly, in the UK, the two terms are, in practice, now interchangeable. Originally, the two terms were as Guy described, and, if we need to make a distinction for some reason, it's still that distinction we make. Generally, we're "family historians" but recognise "genealogists" as being the same thing. (Saves mis-spelling "geneologists").

Thirdly - let me ask you a question - why do Americans feel the need to continually use both terms? And act like there is a day-to-day and current difference?
 Over the past few months, I have heard numerous comments made denigrating "genealogy" in an effort to promote "family history." In this context, the term "genealogy" is viewed as having historically burdensome negative connotations. In its extreme expression, the comments include statements that it is no longer necessary to do genealogy at all. New online programs and available databases provide all that is necessary to research your ancestry without resorting to the base pursuit of "genealogy."

My answer to Adrian's question is that Americans feel the need to continually use both terms because there is a strong movement attempting to sell family history as a more palatable alternative to traditional genealogy. For example, on the FamilySearch Family Tree website the term "genealogy" is almost never used in the context of being an alternative to family history, in fact, it is most commonly used as an adjective describing a personal database as in "my genealogy database."

I believe that efforts to broaden more youthful interest in pursuing family history by simply changing terminology is closely related to doublespeak as defined above. This is especially true if the reason for making the change in terminology is to "make the truth sound more palatable." In effect, the entire genealogical community is being branded as negligent name collectors. I would not be writing about this subject had I not personally been sitting in a meeting where the person conducting the meeting referred to the fact that new programs made doing your genealogy obsolete. I am concerned that the unintended consequences of the repeated attacks on genealogy as a pursuit will end up creating negative impressions that will be applied to the entire process of searching out ancestral records.

By placing genealogy in opposition to family history as alternatives rather than complementary activities, those who make such statements risk alienating the very people who are participating in the activity presently. When I was involved directly in retail sales, we spoke frequently about product lines and customer base. Essentially, when it was necessary, we would change our product lines to accommodate a new customer base. It seems to me that this is exactly what is going on in genealogy although in a much greater scale than a local retail operation. Those who would promote searching out ancestral records to a younger and more computer oriented constituency are viewing genealogy as an undesirable product line.

 The Ancestry Insider in a recent blog post responded to a statement concerning the fact that FamilySearch Family Tree was designed for "genealogists" by stating:
Here’s an aside from the Ancestry Insider: You’re right. That does offend me. Now I’m going to offend some people, but I have to say it.

Let me quote from the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, millennium edition, p. 18: “Descriptive biographical information is provided for individuals in the lineage, pedigree, or genealogy. In addition to vital statistics, the compilation includes sufficient information about each person’s activities, residences, circumstances, contributions, and lifestyle to place them within the context of their historical era, society, and geographic place.”

That sounds a little clinical. Standards usually do. Nationally recognized genealogist, John Colletta, says it pretty well. “Creating a family tree is only half the goal. The other half is learning about your ancestors as men and women with personalities, character traits, motives and aspirations, joys and disappointments, just like you.”

Do you know that until a year ago April, you could not add the story of an ancestor on
Now,  I do not want to get into that conversation, but I do see that using the term "genealogy" in a negative manner contributes to the issue I am raising. I might mention that the limited numbers of people involved in the genealogical community makes them an easy target. Going back to retail terminology, are we going to abandon our current customer base entirely on the assumption that we can increase the viability of our current products and sell those products to a completely different and untested customer?

Seems to me exactly what many people in the genealogical community are doing today. That is, they are attempting to abandon the current participants in the community based on the assumption that they can attract new, younger, more computer savvy set of participants that will sell more or in our case, produce more genealogical product. This is sort of like firing all your employees with the hope that new hires will do a better job. Good luck. I might suggest, as an alternative, that those who are concerned about the demographic makeup of the genealogical community focus more on supporting that community and expanding it than abandoning it for a younger untested constituency.


  1. "Originally" there was no term, "family history." "Originally," genealogy was defined as the same thing that involves both terms, that is, finding your ancestors, publishing them on family group sheets and pedigrees, finding their dates and places and fleshing out their stories. Collecting photos and momentoes were included. Genealogy meant all these things. I agree and I am saddened that Genealogy is being assigned a more negative definition. I love all aspects of Genealogy, which includes what we now call, Family History.

  2. Well - I did ask!

    Regardless of the terms used, I do wonder what happens when the people who have been sucked in because of the stories and photos, run out of stories to find. When they find they have two candidate ancestors of the same name in the same county / state.... When they reach the edge of the Ancestry Insider's Chasm? Will they have knowledge and skills to go forward - or just blame the software for not finding them...

    Adrian B

  3. "Genealogy I am doing it, my genealogy." The good ol' days.

    1. You know of course the words to the song have been changed and it is now politically incorrect to use the term!

  4. I have always respected the term "genealogist" because I am woefully ignorant in all the things that I would need to know to claim that term. I don't always cite sources, I have not made a pilgrimage to historical societies to gather data not have I tramped through graveyards to verify dates. I am a family historian and I gather stories and pictures to bring my family back to life. I have tracked my family back to the Mayflower too and have spent a lot of time confirming my cousin's Tanner family (much more interesting than my family), Still, I would love someday to learn enough about genealogy to be able to call myself a genealogist. The best I can do and have done is to bring my great grandmother back to life as a living, breathing person and not just data on a page. I wish the terms were interchangeable but know I am only a lowly family historian.

    1. I'm sorry you feel that way. I have been trying to get everyone to realize they are the same thing. I guess I will keep trying. It is too bad that people are trying to make genealogy into something it is not.