Suggestions for Amateur Genealogists:
Genealogical Conundrums, Evading Pitfalls, and Seldom-Used Sources

When is an Uncle Not an Uncle?
Slippery Terms of Relationship

     In another article I have addressed the use of the terms "Senior," "Junior" and "Tertius" in old contemporary records (see Senior and Junior and Tertius, Oh My!). In this article I address the use of terms such as "Uncle," "Brother," "Father" and the like. I call terms such as these "slippery" because, even when referring to the same person in the same town, they may have different meanings from record to record - thus their meanings may "slip" or "slide." What can be especially confusing is that in earlier centuries the same word could be used as both a classificatory term and a descriptive term.

     Those new to genealogy may be puzzled when they see a person in old contemporary records refer to someone as "Uncle" when that "Uncle" is not the brother or brother-in-law of one of that person's parents, or when someone refers to "Brother" when no blood or marriage relationship can be discerned. Be aware that our modern terms of relationship did not have the same strict meanings in earlier centuries that they do now. Terms including (but not limited to) brother, sister, father, mother, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece and (notably) cousin formerly referred to much more loosely defined categories of persons than what we are used to. For a classic dissertation about these terms and others, see George E. McCracken[1].

     Here are examples of how some of those terms were once used:

     BROTHER AND SISTER — This is one of the first usages that a new genealogist may understand, when the term is used to refer to a fellow church member, meaning "brother (or sister) in Christ." (In order to simplify explanations I will henceforth generally use masculine terms, with the matching feminine terns to be understood.) There are, however, other usages of "brother" found in old records. It was often used where we would use brother-in-law, that is, to refer to the brother of one's spouse or the husband of one's sister. It might also refer a half-brother, a step-brother, or to the spouse of one's sister-in-law. All of the preceding usages (except when referring to a church member) are probably derived from a literal interpretation of the Biblical dictum that husband and wife become one flesh, and so one's in-laws can be treated the same (especially in establishing degrees of consanguinity) as one's blood relatives. It might therefore refer to almost any relative by blood or marriage, espcially one of the same generation as the speaker or writer. In a broader sense, however, even a non-relative whom the speaker holds dear can be called "brother."

     FATHER AND MOTHER — These terms can be as slippery as the previous pair. One's "Father" was sometimes not one's male parent or step-father, but was instead one's father-in-law, the father of an in-law, or a grandfather, uncle or great-uncle. As with "Brother" it might refer to a non-relative (in this case an older man) whom the speaker holds dear. In general it would refer to an older man whom the speaker regards in some way as he would regard his father.

     UNCLE AND AUNT — These terms may occasionally be rather loosely applied, referring to almost any older relative, or even an older non-relative of whom the speaker was fond. In earlier centuries, for example, one did not commonly distinguish between those whom we now call an uncle and those whom we now call a great-uncle or grand-uncle.

     NEPHEW AND NIECE — These terms were often used as the inverse of uncle and aunt, that is, for almost any younger relative and not just the children of a sibling or a spouse's sibling. As with uncle or aunt the distinctions great- and grand- were not generally used for generational differences in this type of relationship. An etymological note - "nephew" comes from the French "neveu" and ultimately from the Latin "nepos" (from which is also derived "nepotism"). Similarly "niece" comes from the French "nièce" and the Latin "neptis," the feminine form of "nepos."

     COUSIN — This is the slipperiest of all terms of relationship. In addition to what we call a cousin (whether first, second or third, or of any degree of removal - i.e., two people with common grandparents, great-grandparents, or other common ancestors) it was frequently used to refer to a nephew or niece. It was also, however, frequently used to refer to almost any relative outside of one's nuclear family, especially a relative of similar age.

     FIRST (OR SECOND, ETC.) COUSINS AND COUSINS ONCE (OR MORE) REMOVED — These terms indicating precise degrees of relationship, such as "first cousin" or "once removed," may have first been used some centuries ago (perhaps in describing royalty or nobility), but they apparently did not become common usage until perhaps the nineteenth century. I, for one, have not encountered them in Colonial documents.

     GREAT- AND GRAND- — These are also precise terms of relationship which (aside from grandparents and grandchildren) appear to be of relatively recent provenance in general usage. Even in the cases of "grandparent" and "grandchild" those terms in an old document may denote a relationship outside of what we mean today, such as the use of "grandchild" to denote what we would today call a "great-grandchild."

     HALF- AND STEP- — Here is another pair of fine distinctions which were not used in the same way in earlier centuries. A person might call his half-brother (with whome he has but one parent in common) a step-brother, and might call the child of a step-parent's earlier marriage a half-brother, contrary to current usage. In general, though, in old documents you are more likely to see both half-brothers and step-brothers simply called "brother."

     IN-LAW — An in-law is a relative by marriage, as distinct from a blood relative, but our ancestors frequently did not distinguish between those two classes of relatives, referring to the father of a spouse simply as "father so-and-so."

     "NATURAL" SON OR DAUGHTER — This term can easily trip up an inexperienced researcher. Today it is used to refer to illegitimate offspring, but in earlier centuries was it used to distinguish the children of one's marriage from the children of a spouse's earlier marriage, or from an adopted child.

     "MY NOW WIFE" — This term has been mis-interpreted by countless researchers throughout the centuries. An inexperienced amateur who sees the term "my now wife" in an old will may conclude that the testator was married more than once. Its meaning, though, is generally quite different. Centuries ago, when life expectancies were lower than today and medical science was in its infancy, widows and widowers were more commonly of child-bearing years than they are today, and they frequently remarried relatively quickly in order to insure that their children continued to have two living parents. A husband with foresight might draw up a will at a fairly young age, and wish to make provisions that limited the inheritance rights of a possible later wife, or the children of that possible wife, in terms that would stand up in probate court, even if he died without executing a new will or codicil after remarriage. In such a case he could indicate "my now wife" or the children of "my now wife" in order to distinguish them from relatives of a possible, unforeseen later marriage.

     "MR." AND "MRS." — New researchers who encounter a Colonial record of an intention or marriage wherein the bride is called "Mrs." may mis-interpret the record. In Colonial times the use of "Mrs." in an intention or marriage record did not mean that the bride had previously been married. In those times "Mrs." was the feminine equivalent of "Mr.," which was originally "Master," meaning the captain of a ship. It became "Mister," signifying a person of some prestige in a community, such as a selectman, a minister, or a militia officer, and abbreviated "Mr." The wife (or soon-to-be wife) of a man entitled to be called "Mister" was sometimes called "Mistress," abbreviated "Mrs." As George Ernest Bowman remarked in a footnote in Mayflower Descendant, 25 (1923):4, " 'Mrs' or 'Mistress' was not, at that time, restricted to married women. It was frequently used for unmarried women, and girls, of the more prominent families."

     "INFANT" — This term has tripped up many researchers. In Colonial times any minor child might be referred to as an "infant," especially in guardianship records. In most locations minors would be boys under the age of 21 and girls under the age of 18.



     Note 1 - George E. McCracken, "Terms of Relationship in Colonial Times" in The American Genealogist, 55 (1979), pp. 52-54.


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