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Old English
7/30/2014
From acrazed to zythepsary, family history documents are full of archaic words. Don't get stumped — here are five ways to figure out what your ancestors were talking about.

Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll found inspiration and humor in out-of-date English. He filled his famous nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" with lines such as "All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe." You, on the other hand, are probably more confused than bemused when you come across an incomprehensible word in an old record.

You're apt to discover archaic terms in documents from diaries to newspapers. The meaning of the unfamiliar word may hold the clue to an ancestor's occupation, appearance, cause of death or legal transaction. Perhaps an old document will reveal that your ancestor worked in a zythepsary (a brew house) or was a peder (a small-tract farmer). If a letter calls your forebear a mumpsimus, he was an "incorrigible, dogmatic, old pedant," according to Jeffrey Kacirk's Forgotten English. That word traces back to a 15th-century preacher who miswrote the Latin sumpsimus, then refused to acknowledge his mistake. His misspelling came to signify a stubborn personality. Unfortunately, deciphering these words isn't as easy as cracking open the closest copy of Webster's. When was the last time you found peder in the dictionary? Read on to learn how you can decode old, obsolete words and get on with your research.

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