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

Friday, October 11, 2019

Expanded Commentary on the Rules of Genealogy: Rule Ten

I have slowly been going back to the list of the Rules of Genealogy and writing about each individual rule. There are presently 12 Rules. Here is the current list from my blog post of 19 July 2019.
  • Rule One: When the baby was born, the mother was there.
  • Rule Two: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive.
  • Rule Three: Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.
  • Rule Four: There are always more records.
  • Rule Five: You cannot get blood out of a turnip. 
  • Rule Six: Records move. 
  • Rule Seven: Water and genealogical information flow downhill
  • Rule Eight: Everything in genealogy is connected (butterfly)
  • Rule Nine: There are patterns everywhere
  • Rule Ten: Read the fine print
  • Rule Eleven: Even a perfect fit can be wrong
  • Rule Twelve: The end is always there
In this post, I am expanding on Rule Ten: Read the fine print

As an attorney for about 39 years, I know quite a bit about fine print. The phrase "read the fine print" from The Free Dictionary means:
To make oneself aware of the specific terms, conditions, restrictions, limitations, etc., of an agreement, contract, or other document, which are often printed in very small type and thus easy to miss.
However, the phrase has been generalized into a statement about looking for details. Where is the fine print in genealogical research? The fine print is in all those documents you don't read and review carefully. Some of those documents, such as probate files, are potential goldmines of information about families, others such as census records may look rather ordinary and even mundane, but both types of records can provide valuable insight into how, when, and where your ancestors lived.  Of course, as with my example of reading a probate file, we are all faced with documents that contain specialized language or even documents in a language we do not read or speak.

Here is an example of how one letter can change the meaning of an entire document. Let's suppose that in reading a document in Spanish you run across the given name "Julia." In another place, you find a reference to a very similar name spelled "Julio." Are these two names the same? Is there possibly a spelling error? The answer in Spanish is simple. Julia is the feminine form of the name and Julio is the masculine form of the name.  They are probably references to two different people. This is what I mean by reading the fine print. We need to read and study the documents so that we avoid glossing over the details that may make all the difference in the ultimate meaning of the document.

Granted, my example implies that you might have to learn how to read some Spanish. Yes, that is exactly what the Rule means. You have to gain enough knowledge about the history, the language, and the specialized terminology or jargon of the documents to understand and correctly interpret the details. To do this, you may have to live with dictionaries and other reference materials. Personally, I use Google to quickly verify the meaning of any term I do not understand completely but in some cases, I have to dig deeper to find the meaning of obscure or archaic terms.

Fortunately, there are extensive reference books online such as Black's Law Dictionary and other similar treatises that will help you sort out complex legal documents and other specialized complex documents. The good news is you do not have to become a lawyer or other type of professional to do genealogy but you do have to learn a lot about law and other topics to do an adequate job of reading old or complex documents.

Do not ignore any term or reference that you do not completely understand. This is what is meant by reading the fine print. 

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