Genealogy’s Often-Misspelled Words

You might want to save this article someplace. I have no idea why, but many of the words used in researching your family tree are difficult to spell. I constantly see spelling errors in messages posted on various genealogy web sites. When someone misspells a word, it feels like they are shouting, “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

Here are a few words to memorize:

Genealogy – No, it is not spelled “geneology” nor is it spelled in the manner I often see: “geneaology.” That last word looks to me as if someone thought, “Just throw all the letters in there and hope that something sticks.” For some reason, many newspaper reporters and their editors do not know how to spell this word. Don’t they have spell checkers?

Cemetery – The letter “a” does not appear anywhere in the word “cemetery.” You can remember the spelling by an old saying, “We go to the cemetery with E’s.” (ease)

Ancestor – This simple word is often spelled “ancester,” “ansester,” or “ansestor.”

Ancestry – This word is often misspelled “ancestory.” I often see errors when someone is referring to the ancestry.com online web site as “ancestory.com.”

History – More than once I have seen someone refer to their “family histroy” or “family histry.”

Descent – Perhaps not as common, but I have seen this spelled as “decent,” which sounds almost the same.

Descendant – it often appears as descendent, descentent and many others.

Grantor versus Grantee – In land records, the grantor is the one who sells or gives (grants) the land while the grantee is the one who receives.

Copyright – Then there is Copyright versus Copywrite.  Just remember that it is always right to copy, not write to copy.

Progenitor – I can never remember how to spell this word. I simply try to avoid it when I am writing!

Two other words often are confused: immigrant and emigrant. Another variation is immigration versus emigration. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary at http://www.merriam-webster.com, an emigrant is “a person who leaves a country or region to live in another one” while an immigrant is “a person who comes to a country to live there.” To repeat, an emigrant leaves while an immigrant arrives.

The late Dick Pence was quite a storyteller, and once he told of an online genealogy article he wrote in which he poked fun at common spelling errors by genealogists. He deliberately misspelled ten different words in the article, including most of the words I listed above. In the text of the article, he never mentioned that the article was a tongue-in-cheek attempt at humor.

Dick soon received an email message from an irate lady who apparently didn’t realize it was a deliberate attempt at humor. She scolded him for his spelling errors, writing, “Mr. Pence, you should be ashamed of yourself. I am an English teacher and I want to tell you that I found seven spelling errors in your article!”

22 Comments

Thank you for this – I was always taught that if you pronounce your words correctly, you will have less trouble spelling them (leaving aside awkward ones, typos and difficult place names!). The one that bugs me most is ‘everyone’s’ mispronunciation of genealogy. And I have to say that I noticed the Ancestory one, but assummed people were making comment about the company and it was a deliberate ‘error’ – similar to the M$ abreviation some folk use for Microsoft!

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My favourite reminder for the correct pronunciation of genealogy – it’s an allergy in your genes you have to scratch! Unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily help people to spell it correctly. Great list!

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Is there a way to tell readers the difference between a mailing list and a website? This is most annoying item I get in my mailing lists all the time.

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Then there are our last names. In three decades, I’ve seen 47 spellings so far, yet there are only two way that are considered correct over the past 800+ years.

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It’s fascinating that we spent our time complaining that our ancestors could not spell their names when we can’t spell the technical words in our hobby.

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So I emigrated from the UK to immigrate to NZ!

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Where I live, there is a marked difference in pronunciation between “descent” and “decent”. The former is a homophone of “dissent”, with the accent on the second syllable, while the latter has it on the first syllable.
I noticed that a character in a B.B.C. radio comedy programme this week kept saying “geneologist”, while another made a point of correcting her each time.

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Cemetery seems to be one of the hardest words for me to spell. I’m grateful for red squiggles in the broswer that remind me. 😉

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I visited a small rural cemetery once that had its name displayed on a wooden sign that was part of a fence: [Community Name] Cemetery. It seemed to have been carved into the wood with a router and then painted appropriately. Once inside the cemetery, I noticed that the back side of that plank, perhaps unpainted, had upside down the words: [Community Name] Cemetary!

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Since cemeteries are often associated with ghosts we were taught in school to associate the word “eek” and spell the cemeteries with an “e” not an “a”

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I understand that an emigrant is exiting, while an immigrant is incoming, but at what point in the middle of the Atlantic does an emigrant from Europe become an immigrant to Canada?

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    I was taught that in this situation if you’re talking about Canada, they’re an immigrant. If you are talking about Europe, they’re an emigrant. So they emigrate from Scotland. They immigrate to Alberta.

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I suspect it helps to have been taught to read via the phonetic method rather than rote memory. In seventh grade I transferred to a junior & senior high school in a neighboring town where my peers had been part of an experiment to learn to read via memorization rather than “sounding out” words phonetically as I had been taught in a two-room school where I was the only child in my class from second through sixth grade. When we were seniors our classes included one on spelling! Obviously, rote memorization was a monumental disaster.

Besides some writers/speakers not knowing when to use “fewer” vs “less than” (particularly noticeable in commercials) is the newest thing that irritates me: “could of,” “would of,” “should of,” instead of the correct “could’ve,” “would’ve,” “should’ve” as contractions for “could have,” would have,” “should have.” It was bad enough to see/hear “ec cetera” (pronounced “ek cetra”) instead of the correct “et cetera” (etc).

If it is true that many/most young people today can’t read cursive and aren’t even taught how to write cursive in grade school, there won’t be many future genealogists who can read old documents going back some four hundred years in the US, even older in European records – and without tutoring, the fine art of interpreting or translating Gothic penmanship will be completely lost. Compounding the problem is lack of standardized spelling until the 20th century, phonetic spelling of foreign names and words in local dialects, etc.

As my Scandinavian ancestors (and current relatives) would say: “Uff da!” Yes, that is the correct spelling! It is an expression of dismay (see ‘Norwegian-English Dictionary’ by Einar Haugen).

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The one I see done incorrectly most often, even in newspapers, is internment (what the U.S. did to the Japanese in WW II) for interment (burial). Drives me bats.

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    The newest one is “inurnment.” I had to look that one up to see if it was a real word. It is.

    Inurnment: The placing of cremated remains in an urn followed by placement in a niche or some other resting location.

    In the case of an aunt and uncle of mine, their ashes were buried in a cemetery and a regular grave marker place on the ground to mark where their ashes are buried.

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You forgot “interment” and “internment” – two completely different things.

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Ann Haviland Amadori April 19, 2019 at 10:56 am

This quote from Mark Twain’s autobiography makes me smile:
“I never had any large respect for good spelling. That is my feeling yet. Before the spelling-book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling-book has been a doubtful benevolence to us. “

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Here’s a question, does anyone still use distaff?.. (As in side of the family)

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It’s surprising how many times I see, in books and newspapers, which should have editors, the word ancestor when descendant is meant: “She learned she was the ancestor of John Alden.” My pet peeve is the use of parent’s for parents’: “He visited his parent’s graves.”

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This is not spelling, but usage. I often see “ancestor” and “descendant” used interchangeably; it surprises me.

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I agree with Teri R about the frequent misuse of “ancestor” for “descendant” and vice versa. The easy way to remember is that “ancestors are above” you in a tree, and your “descendants are down” from you.

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