Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Lost Ancestor-Speak" (December 8, 2013)

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin was published on November 5, 2013.  I am a good way into the book and despite some of the negative criticism the book has garnered, I am finding it a thoroughly enjoyable read. I read Edmund Morris's multi-volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt (which provides much more scope and detail on Roosevelt than does The Bully Pulpit), but I have to admit that other than the very basics, I am unread when it comes to William Howard Taft.

As I am making my way through the book, I am struck by the similarities with our own times -- the flurry of inventions and technological revolutions, the disparity in wealth distribution in the U.S., the ever present political corruption, the battle between conservatives and progressives, and the role of an increasingly activist press (who went down in history as the "muckrakers"). What struck me too, were the many instances of a now lost vocabulary spoken by those of the time.  These are the words of our ancestors of just over a century ago and yet so many of their words sound odd and even foreign to our ears today.  This, of course, is true for every generation with respect to the slang and fads that enter the common patois and often have a half-life measured in months.  Other words seem to have a more general standard quality and they enter the written and literary language of the time with a life that  probably appeared eternal to those who used them -- but yet time and again we see that the words of even our fairly recent ancestors sound peculiar to us.  I have picked out a couple from The Bully Pulpit as examples of what I call "lost ancestor-speak" for purposes of this post.

Speaking years later of the 1890s Farmers' Alliance and Populist Party, one of the renowned McClure's muckrakers, William Allen White, wrote, "We prideful ones considered the Alliance candidates as the dregs of Butler County society; farmers who had lost their farms, Courthouse hangers-on . . . political scapegraces." Scapegraces?  The word scapegrace apparently originated in the early 19th century as a combination of scape (as in scapegoat) and grace (as used in the "free favor of God" in Christian belief especially).  So a scapegrace was a person who "escaped the grace of God" or, in other words, a mischievous or wayward person; a rascal.

Another of the "Big Four" muckrakers at McClure's, Lincoln Steffens, wrote that he faced, as the head of the new police bureau for the Evening Post in New York in November 1893, "beastly work, police, criminals and low-browed 'heelers' in the vilest part of the horrible East Side amid poverty, sin and depravity."  Heelers?  The word apparently comes from the term used for something that follows close behind (as a dog "heels" when falling in behind its owner).  The term came to be used in derogatory political descriptions for the henchmen of a local political boss who followed orders and kept in their places behind, or at the heels of, the Boss.  The term later became softened a bit and was used to describe someone who was put in charge of the lowest levels of a local party organization -- a "ward heeler."

Intermittently this year I have posted excerpts from my grandfather's A Line A Day diary from 1913 -- one hundred years ago.  In reading and transcribing his diary, I came across words he used that I had to research -- words that were in common use at the end of the 19th century and turn of the 20th century.  An example is from his entry for February 29, 1913.  [The most attentive among you will note that 1913 was not a leap year, but 1912 was.]  My grandfather's entry for March 1, 1913 stated, "What I have written on opposite page all belongs in this space.  This page seems to be my hoodoo!" The word hoodoo is said to have originated in the 19th century as an alteration of voodoo and came to mean a person or thing that brings or causes bad luck, but can also mean a run of bad luck associated with a person or activity (such as my grandfather's problems with remembering that the section in his diary for February 29th would not be available for use every year).

So, while the language and words that our ancestors used can seem foreign and even peculiar to us now, research and re-discovery of lost ancestor-speak is not just fascinating, it also informs our ability to better understand what it is they are actually saying to us decades and generations down the line.  

What "lost ancestor-speak" have you come across in your genealogy research? 

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Scan of the dust-jacket to Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit from the personal copy of the author.
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. Great post, John. I think it's so important for family historians to understand the language of their ancestors. Sometimes we assume the words they used meant the same thing to them as they do to us, which may or may not be correct. Learning the differences can add another light to our knowledge. I'm guessing that you used Webster's 1913 dictionary to find your definitions. I wrote a post a while ago about Webster's 1828 (which was commonly used until the 1913 edition). This site ( has both the 1828 and 1913. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Nancy. Thank you for your positive comment -- it is much appreciated!

    I did look at the 1913 Webster's, but I also used the New Oxford American and the Merriam-Webster On- line,