Deciphering Abbreviations

When I began researching my family tree, I didn’t follow any rules. To be honest, I didn’t know there were rules. I had entered a new world of finding, recording and storing information. Inevitably, I made mistakes. Some mistakes were made because I didn’t understand the abbreviations used in genealogy.

Every day we are inundated with abbreviations – DVD, VCR, MP3. Genealogy is no different. There are many reasons abbreviations are used, but the obvious are to save time in typing (or writing) and to save space.

The first unknown abbreviation I faced was Esq. I initially thought this was some type of occupation, so I gave it no further thought. After a year or so (I’m a procrastinator), I decided to learn more about this trade I had noted for a few ancestors.

I discovered Esq was not an occupation, but short for esquire and was used as a gentleman’s courtesy title. According to A to Zax – A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists & Historians by Barbara Jean Evans, it is “a title used in this country to mean a person of considerable influence or even wealth”.

Another abbreviation which through me for a loop was sic. Upon reading, “Elizabth [sic] Fraser married…” I wondered if the bride had been sick when she married. It turns out, she wasn’t ill at all. Many times we find information compiled by others who have consulted official or original documents. The information from these documents is usually copied word for word including obvious mistakes. To bring attention to these mistakes, sic is noted directly after them.

The date of birth can be recorded using d.o.b. or simply b. (born) with or without the periods. Date of death is similar: d.o.d. or d. (died/death). Baptism is shortened to bap. or bapt, and place of burial is noted as bur.

An educated guess is noted by c. or ca. for circa. For example, if a person died in1980 at the age of 75, the year of birth would have been about 1905 or c.1905.

Marriage or married is noted with a single m. If the person was married a second time, it is recorded as m2 or m(2). Folks who died unmarried young or old are noted by unm. After the death of a spouse, the wife is a wid (widow) and the husband becomes a wdwr (widower).

Family members are denoted as w (wife), h (husband), d/o or s/o (daughter or son of), gs (grandson), and gd (granddaughter). Be careful with w/o. This could mean wife of or the short hand without.

What and when to abbreviate is up to the individual researcher. Personally, I record shorthand with abbreviations to save time unless I am unfamiliar with a particular piece of information. However, when it comes to entering the information in my family tree files, I spell it out unless the abbreviation is well known.

The main reason I do this is because not everyone in my family is genealogy savvy, nor do they care to be. If I want everyone to enjoy my long hours of research, they need to be able to understand what they are reading.

And to be honest, my head spins when I’m faced with compressed information: b.09 01 1898; d.08 12 1949; m1.12 09 1919; m2. 10 03 1927. I’m more likely to scan and not read or absorb any of this. This makes good reference information, but it’s boring.

There are many more genealogy abbreviations, but these are the ones you’ll encounter often.

Diane Lynn Tibert

Abbreviations can also appear on headstones. Wm stands for William.

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3 thoughts on “Deciphering Abbreviations

  1. I too have been baffled by some abbreviations but did not know for sure if Esq was really a wealthy or influential person or something else. Thanks for the clarification. I haven’t come across a short form yet, but still wondering what a “chairwoman” is in the census. My gr-gr-gr grandmother lived in Nova Scotia and the moved to Bruce County Ontario and is mentioned as such along with another relative of hers on the same page of the census form. She was in her 70’s. So if you see cw after a name, perhaps it is a chairwoman:) I’m thinking this is like a “chairman” and not that she was in a wheelchair as it is under occupation and not health. Good one, eh!

  2. Maybe chairwoman is misspelled and is more likely to be charwoman….”cleaning lady”…so many older woman with or without family defined themselves as houseworkers which earned their keep

    • This is indeed worth investigating since she was Scottish. It may have even sounded like chairwoman. I will also see who took the census as sometime an Irishman does and can’t understand the other’s language. Another example is a tombstone that says this Stewart is from Skergill, Scotland – after investigation, the closest possible name is Cargill.

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