In the course of your genealogy research, there are always a few things that may leave you scratching your head. Legal terminology is one of those things. Whether you are perusing old wills and land records or more modern legal documents, you are likely to run into some unfamiliar words. Because of my legal background, I am usually able to cut through the legalese and figure out what is going on but sometimes I do have to look up definitions, even with modern documents.
Legalese is somewhat of a soap-box issue for me. For some reason, during my first year of law school I realized that many court decisions and other legal documents are written in “legalese” for no apparent reason. There are other words that could be used to say the exact same thing, words that most people can understand. While I have never been able to figure out why legalese continues to be used, I did make a promise to myself during law school that I have kept to this day and will continue to keep forever. I promised myself that I will speak to and write for my clients in plain English, no legalese.
That said, I have found it useful to keep a list of commonly used legal terms in my genealogy research binder. This list helps me understand legal documents both old and new. Here are a few definitions from the list:
Abut: Not the body part that you sit on, abut simply means that one piece of land is next to another. My land abuts my neighbor’s land.
Ad Litem: “For this case only”, commonly used in probate court. For example, Mary Smith, being duly appointed by this court, shall administer ad litem the estate of her sister, Beatrice Jones, deceased.
Administratrix Schedule: A female administrator. Nowadays, the term “Administratrix” is used by itself, without the “Schedule”, to mean the same thing.
Bequest – A gift given in a will.
Bounty Land – Public land that was given to young men by the government to persuade them to join the military, or given after their return as a reward for their service. There were a lot of grants of bounty land in the Midwestern United States.
Cadastral – A tax map, that is, a map showing who owns each piece of land in a town as well as the value of each piece of land.
Capital Manor – No, it’s not the White House. It is the place where you live, or where you live most of the time if you are lucky to have a second (or third, or fourth) home.
Circa – Approximately. Usually used in reference to dates, where an exact date is not available.
This is just a sampling of the many terms that you may come across in your research. If you are doing family history research and you come across an unfamiliar word, be sure to look it up so that your research notes can be complete and accurate. If you are like me and you like words, you may just come across a few gems that you can pull out just for laughs. In fact, I think that the next time I ask friends to come to my house for dinner, I’ll email them an invitation to dinner at the Capital Manor. Either that or I’ll go down to the Town Clerk’s office and ask if I can see the cadastral. Maybe I’ll do both.