Tips for Reading Old Genealogy Records

By Fern Glazer Premium

You’re trying to read an ancestor’s record and you keep coming across puzzling words that don’t seem to make sense. These tips will help you sort out old-fashioned writing:

1. Since spelling wasn’t standardized until education became universal in the 20th century, many people spelled phonetically. How someone pronounced a word also affected his spellling. Read the word aloud: Hearing it may reveal what the author meant to write.

2. Familiarize yourself with these common spelling irregularities:

  • Using y for i (fyne instead of fine)
  • Interchanging i and j (Iohn for John)
  • Interchanging u and v (neuer for never and vnto for unto)
  • In the Colonial era, an elongated s, resembling an f, in words that have a double s (pafs for pass)
  • A single consonant where you’d find two in modern English (al instead of all)
  • A double consonant where you’d find one in modern English (allways instead of always)
  • ff for F
  • the thorn, an Old English symbol that represents a th sound. The thorn looks like a y in writing, so ye means the (this is where “ye,” as in Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, comes from).

3. Paper and ink were costly and writing with a quill was laborious, so our forebears often  shortened common words and proper names. Get to know these types of abbreviations:

  • Contractions, which remove letters from the middle of a word, may substitute a tilde (~) or an apostrophe for the missing letters: dec’d for deceased
  • A writer would lop off half a word and sometimes add a semicolon, colon or period to form a shorter suspension: wid. for widow
  • Abbreviations with superiors are shortened words featuring the final letter in superscript, such as Abm (Abraham)

4. Look for these common abbreviations

  • do for ditto
  • chh for church
  • sd or sd for said
  • rect for receipt (what our ancestors often called a recipe)
  • f. for son of and fa. for daughter of (derived from Latin)