by Jayne McGarvey, Senior Genealogist with Genealogists.com
When we succeed in going further back in our family history research, it is likely we will start to encounter words and phrases that are unfamiliar or appear to be “out of context” according to modern usage. Some of these words may be now obsolete jobs, others archaic terms. A knowledge of the meaning of these terms can be helpful when you have undated documents that form part of the research. Knowing when and where words have entered and exited common use is can help you determine an approximate date range. For example, if a letter mentions something heard on the radio, chances are your letter is post 1912 (opening of the world’s first purpose built radio factory in Chelmsford, England by Marconi). It can be slightly more difficult when a word remains in use but its meaning changes–in this case, an incorrect assumption could send you down the wrong path!
Words that were in common usage in the past may now be considered inappropriate, even hurtful, insensitive, abusive, or offensive and occasionally just plain hilarious.
We sometimes find headstones that have a date carved in Roman Numerals. Despite the fall of the Roman Empire millennia ago and modern day usage of Arabic numerals (1,2,3, etc.) Roman Numerals continued to appear throughout history, and we still use them today. Appearing alongside the names of popes and monarchs, the hulls of ships, and still used by the film industry among others.
Developed for purposes of commerce, the Roman Numerical system is primarily a counting or tally system. If you don’t remember these numbers from your school days, each tally stick or notch represented “one”. Every fifth notch was then double cut to form a “V” shape, and every tenth notch double crossed to form an “X”. Roman Numerals do not have a zero “0”, no negative values and only 7 digits
|Roman Digit||Arabic Value|
When one or more numerals are used to form a number, the value of each symbol is (generally) added together from left to right commencing with the highest value digit. The exception is where a lower value numerical digit is placed in front (to the left) of a higher value digit. When this happens, the lower numerical value should be subtracted from the larger. This usually kicks in one digit away fro
m an incremental increase to the change of digit. (The purpose of this practice is to shorten the string.)
Hence the numbers one to ten in order appear as I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX and X.
Other examples of this are 9; instead of writing VIIII (5+1+1+1+1), you would write IX (1 subtracted from 10). This pattern continues up the string, so 40 will not appear as XXXX (10+10+10+10) it will show as XL (10 subtracted from 50).
Occasional variances do occur, some very old manuscripts just keep on adding numerals without using the subtraction rule. A few indicate a multiplication requirement by placing a bar – above the letter meaning you multiply the number by 1,000. Instead of writing 6,000 as MMMMMM it may appear as VI with a bar over the top
If you have British heritage, you may encounter old documents that were dated by their regnal year. This is particularly common with pre-17th century deeds. A regnal year is calculated from the day, month, and year of accession to the throne. By this calculation, Edward VI’s regnal years falls between 28 January 1547 and 6 July 1553.
If you are in doubt of when which King or Queen reigned when here is a quick reminder.
|Monarch||Accession Date||End of Reign Date|
|William I||14 October 1066||9 September 1087|
|William II||26 September 1087||2 August 1100|
|Henry I||5 August 1100||1 December 1135|
|Stephen||26 December 1135||25 October 1154|
|Henry II||19 December 1154||6 July 1189|
|Richard I||3 September 1189||6 April 1199|
|John||27 May 1199||19 October 1216|
|Henry III||28 October 1216||16 November 1272|
|Edward I||20 November 1272||7 July 1307|
|Edward II||8 July 1307||20 January 1327|
|Edward III||25 January 1327||21 June 1377|
|Richard II||22 June 1377||29 September 1399|
|Henry IV||30 September 1399||20 March 1413|
|Henry V||21 March 1413||31 August 1422|
|Henry VI||1 September 1422||4 March 1461|
|And||9 October 1470||14 April 1471|
|Edward IV||4 March 1461||9 April 1483|
|Edward V||9 April 1483||25 June 1483|
|Richard III||26 June 1483||22 August 1485|
|Henry VII||22 August 1485||21 April 1509|
|Henry VIII||22 April 1509||28 January 1547|
|Edward VI||28 January 1547||6 July 1553|
|Mary||6 July 1553||24 July 1554|
|Philip & Mary||25 July 1554||17 November 1558|
|Elizabeth I||17 November 1558||24 March 1603|
|James I||24 March 1603||27 March 1625|
|Charles I||27 March 1625||30 January 1649|
|Inter-regnum||30 January 1649||29 May 1660|
|Charles II||29 May 1660||6 February 1685|
|Reckoned from 30 January 1649|
|James II||6 February 1685||11 December 1688|
|Inter-regnum||12 December 1688||12 February 1689|
|William & Mary||13 February 1689||27 December 1694|
|William III||28 December 1694||8 March 1702|
|Anne||8 March 1702||1 August 1714|
|George I||1 August 1714||11 June 1727|
|George II||11 June 1727||25 October 1760|
|George III||25 October 1760||29 January 1820|
|George IV||29 January 1820||26 June 1830|
|William IV||26 June 1830||20 June 1837|
|Victoria||20 June 1837||22 January 1901|
|Edward VII||22 January 1901||6 May 1910|
|George V||6 May 1910||20 January 1936|
|Edward VIII||20 January 1936||11 December 1936|
|George VI||11 December 1936||6 February 1952|
|Elizabeth II||6 February 1952|
Source: All Ireland Sources Newsletter, Volume 7, No. 5, May 2005
If you find documents that you are unsure of the meaning or the meaning seems out of context (especially if they are undated) ask for help. With over 4,000 genealogists in most countries throughout the world, Genealogists.com has the combined knowledge and experience to advise you about historic phraseology. If your local library has copies of old dictionaries, these too can be very useful to determine the meaning of a word during the era in which it was used.
To learn how the world’s largest family history research firm can help you learn about your ancestors, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Jayne McGarvey is a professional genealogist with Genealogists.com. Jayne has over a decade of researching Northern Ireland records and archives. She provides expert tips, tricks, and information on Ireland (mostly Northern Ireland), mingled with some humor.