Translation Gets Lost in Old English

If you are researching British families, you probably feel confident to tackle the records in the "old country"--after all, they are in English, right? Genealogists, like other American travelers to the British Isles, soon discover that the English language varies considerably in these locales. Even ordinary terms that you assume you know often have completely different meanings in British records.

If you find your English ancestor in a pledgehouse, it does not mean he lived on fraternity row at a university, and you won't be bragging about his accomplishments either. A pledgehouse was a prison where debtors were kept. However, if you discover your London ancestor was a pattenmaker, don't be alarmed. He made shoes with high heels, designed to raise the feet above the level of mud in the streets.

Rape--in Sussex, England--does not refer to forcible sexual intercourse, but rather is a term used for a grouping of several Hundreds. Hundred was a subdivision of a county or shire that had its own court. A number of taxes, including land tax, are arranged under Hundreds and many registration districts are named after the old Hundreds. Hundred probably was named because it originally contained either 100 families, 100 fighting men or 100 hides. A hide is a British term referring originally to the amount of land considered sufficient for the maintenance of one family. A hide could measure anywhere from 60 to 120 acres or more. Later it became a tax-assessment unit.

Coming upon a notation that your ancestor was "half-baptized" will certainly puzzle an American researcher. In England, this colloquial term meant privately baptized. This usually occurred when a baby was ill or so frail it was feared it would die before it could be taken to the church.

Another term you may encounter in old church records is "gossip," which was not a blabbermouth, but a godparent. The term also could mean a close female friend who was present at childbirth. Evidently, "gossip" is a corruption of "Goodsib."

There may be Gretna Green marriages in your family. Gretna Green is a village in southern Scotland, near the English border, to which many English couples eloped. This term came to mean marriage without parental consent. They also are called Border Marriages, which became common as a result of a Marriage Act in 1754 that made marriages in England legal only if performed in a building licensed for that purpose.

However, couples discovered they could cross into Scotland and be married without any fuss. As even the presence of a priest was unnecessary in Scotland, enterprising men in border villages set themselves up in business solely to perform marriages. In 1825, an entrepreneur turned the Old Gretna Hall into a marriage center and hotel--offering facilities for both the ceremony and consummation.

You will discover some interesting dating of documents in British records (and some in Colonial American records): Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer Day (June 24), Michaelmas (Sept. 29) and Christmas Day (Dec. 25). These were days on which quarterly payments were due and when tenancies began and ended. In Scotland, Candlemas was Feb. 2, Whit Sunday was May 15, Lammas was Aug. 1 and Martinmas was Nov. 11.

(Gormley welcomes genealogical questions for her column, but is unable to answer individual letters. For her beginner's how-to genealogy kit (with charts) send $4 to Kit, Box 64316, Tacoma, Wash. 98464.)

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