Young Genealogist’s Discovery Surprises Etymologists

23 Mar 2013

Genealogists never know what they are going to find. Most of you have probably found a surprise or two when researching your family. On occasion, you can even find that your family has a link to something historical. This was the experience of Nathaniel Sharpe.

Bathgate, North Dakota, is a town of approximately fifty people up near the Canadian border. Twenty-two year old Nathaniel Sharpe, a Bathgate resident, has already been researching his family for a decade. Fortunately for Nathaniel, he is researching in the digital age, where many resources are available online.

Nathaniel is a descendant of John W. Putman of Batavia, New York. Nathaniel was searching online newspaper databases to find information about Putman. The Republican Advocate in Batavia provided him with some success, but not of the kind he was seeking.

Putman’s name appeared in the issue of March 8, 1836. It was in a blacklist of names compiled by local merchants. These individuals had left town without settling their debts. Next to Putman’s name was the word “skallewagg.” Because of the interesting spelling, Sharpe was not certain whether it was a version of the modern “scalawag,” or if the word meant something else entirely in that time period.



Finding the answer to that question set him off on an entirely new quest. He searched for the term, and came across a recent piece by an etymologist on the term scalawag that contained interesting information indeed. The earliest known use of the term was in John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, published in 1848.  Sharpe’s discovery predated this by a dozen years.



Bartlett’s definition of the word was “a favorite epithet in western New York for a mean fellow; a scapegrace.” After the Civil War, the term was used frequently to denote a white Southerner who supported Reconstruction. Etymologists believe that the term is of Scottish origin.

Sharpe joined the mailing list for the American Dialect Society, impressing etymologists with his findings. No less than Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations called Sharpe’s work “outstanding research.”

It is heartening to see the work of a genealogist, and one so young at that, being respected by traditional historical and etymological scholars. Ben Zimmer wrote an article telling the story Nathaniel’s search and discovery in the Boston Globe. The entire tale is quite interesting.