Beware Colloquialisms

31 Jul 2012

Back in the 1980s I went to college in the Pioneer Valley. I attended the University of Massachusetts. But if you look at a map of the commonwealth, you will probably have difficulty locating the Pioneer Valley.

The Pioneer Valley is a colloquial name for the area of western Massachusetts around the Connecticut River. The valley stretches across three counties (Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire), from the Connecticut border in the south to the Vermont border in the north.

When our ancestors migrated, especially across great distances, the place of origin can be difficult to identify. Colloquial place names make this task even more difficult. Often they are used instead of the official name. While some colloquial names survive through time, others fall into disuse and are lost. Modern inhabitants may have no idea of previous colloquial names.

Often a colloquial name can sound so much like an official name that one can’t even recognize it as colloquial. A perfect example of this comes from my native state of Rhode Island. When I worked in the library at NEHGS, we would often have people come in looking for Rhode Island maps so they could find South County.

Rhode Island county map.

Where is South County on this map?

This is a colloquial term for Washington County, Rhode Island. It is the most southern county in the state, and natives often refer to it as simply South County. Unfortunately for researchers, the towns of Coventry, West Greenwich, and East Greenwich (which lie in neighboring Kent County) are often considered part of South County. All of this can make a genealogist’s head spin.

When dealing with place names, take into account that the information you have on an ancestor may include a colloquial name. If you cannot find it on a map, check gazetteers (especially older ones). If you know what state it should be in from the ssdi, then try contacting the state library or state historical society. They might be able to help you identify the place and thus bring success to your genealogy search.