One of the pitfalls of genealogy is learning not to impart modern meanings on our ancestors. Nowhere is this more key than in working with original documents. The language in documents can be key in identifying them. Using words as clues in your genealogical research can be a tremendous help to you.
Words come and go from our lexicon. And often they stay, but meanings changing. One example of this comes from the past year, where the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has now added a second definition of the word “literally.” Because of the excessive use of this term by ill-informed and undereducated individuals, it now also means exactly the opposite, figuratively.
Words can also be very helpful. If you have undated documents you are trying to identify, examining the language can help you. Knowing when words entered common use can assist you. It will not be possible to narrow it to a specific date, but certainly can get you into an approximate time period.
A couple of weeks ago the Boston Globe ran an interesting piece about words. Instead of the typical year-end review of words that had entered the dictionary in the past year, the piece looked back at words that entered the lexicon in 1914. Some of these are still used today, but others have already come and gone.
The start of World War I brought us a number of words we commonly use today. Some make sense, such as air raid (bombs dropped from aircraft), trench coat (a waterproof coat worn by the military in the trenches), and even Balkanization (dividing a region into separate units). Another commonly used word whose origins you may not know: doohickey (military slang for a small, nondescript object, especially a mechanical one).
Other words that entered the language that year include Gesundheit, oy vey, shish kebab, and Tochus. Each of these came into the English language from another (German, Yiddish, Turkish, and Yiddish respectively). Other words that came in 1914: backpack, big screen, crossword, peppy, posh, stash, and sociopath. Many of these are words that one might think had been around much longer. It is important to study the language in a document to help date it. Never assume when words came into common use. The tunnel under the English Channel connecting England and France was completed in 1994. It is called the Chunnel, leading one to believe it is a contemporary word, but it actually entered common use in 1914.
Some words that entered that year are no longer in use. These include billiken (a small, elf-like doll; deratization (the expulsion of rats), and scrutty (dusty, scruffy). Examining when words like this entered and left common usage can assist you in dating a document.
The most dangerous words for genealogists, however, are those whose meanings have changed over time. For example jake was used as an adjective to mean good or okay. Today it is use to mean a fireman. Scat was a slang term for whiskey. Today it is a musical style (or something much more base). And seeing the word Roscoe in a letter might lead you to believe that you are looking for a person, while back in 1914 it was a slang term for a handgun.
When reading documents one must be careful. This is especially important when dealing with correspondence, journals, and diaries, which are much more personal and therefore prone to nicknames and slang terminology. Making assumptions just might send you down the wrong trail.