Say (and spell) What?: Tricky research words

Genealogy words can be tricky—ahnentafels, anyone?—and words that look or sound alike don’t help much.

In order to facilitate communications and understanding—and humor, of course—we’ve collected a few of the most frequent mix-ups we’ve encountered, with definitions and examples:


 Cavalry — an army component mounted on horseback. Ex: Company M of the first regiment of the Iowa volunteer cavalry mustered out of Davenport on September 12, 1861.

Mt. Calvary —  A cemetery in Davenport named after a hill in Jerusalem. Ex: Antoine LeClaire is buried at Mt. Calvary cemetery.

In other words, cavalry can be buried at Mt. Calvary, but not the other way around, even if the horses are really hungry.

Ordinance — a law set forth by a governmental authority; specifically a municipal regulation. Ex: Revised Ordinances of the City of Davenport.

Ordnance — military supplies including weapons, ammunition, combat vehicles, and maintenance tools and equipment. A service of the army charge with procuring, distributing, and safekeeping of ordnance. Ex: The Ordnance Museum at Rock Island Arsenal was opened to the public on July 4, 1905.

There are many ordinances for ordnance in Davenport, but not—we hope—the other way around.  Hey, we just work here!

Decedent — a person who has died. Ex: Death record indexes include the name of the decedent, death date and county of death.

Descendant — A person, plant, or animal that is descended from a particular ancestor. Ex: The Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants

All decedents are descendants of someone, but not all descendants are decedents yet.

Patent (invention) — A government authority to an individual or organization conferring a right or title, esp. the sole right to make, use, or sell some invention. Ex: The Patent and Trademark research computer is located in the Special Collections Center.

Patent (Land) —pronounced “pay-tent”—evidence of right, title, and/or interest to a quantity of land, usually granted by a central, federal, or state government to an individual or private company.  Ex: a Land Patent is the only form of proof of absolute title to Land in the United States of America.

You can patent something to prove you invented it or show a patent to prove you own a parcel of land.  But since you can’t invent land, don’t even try patenting a patent!

Statute – A written law passed by a legislative body. Ex: Revised Statutes of the Territory of Iowa

Statue – A carved or cast figure of a person or animal, esp. one that is life-size or larger. Ex: A statue of Bix Beiderbecke is located on the corner of River Drive and 4th Street.

Statutes have been passed to regulate statues . . . but most statues don’t bother writing their legislators  about statutes regulating pigeons.

Tract – An area of indefinite extent, typically a large one. A defined area of land. Ex: Land Tract books

Track – Follow the course or trail of (someone or something), typically in order to find them or note their location at various points. Ex: Using census information to track your family

You can track your family by finding their patented tracts of land.  We call that tract-tracking.

Abstract – A summary or statement of the contents of a book, article, or formal speech.   Ex: Abstracted Names from the Davenport Democrat.

Extract – A short passage taken from a piece of writing, music, or film. Ex: Extract of Sexton Records.

The names listed in our Abstracted Names index were extracted from the Davenport Democrat.

And finally, Ahnentafel, which doesn’t sound or look like anything else, but is still a problem for many of our patrons.  It’s the German word for ancestor tables!

 Ex: I want to look up my surnames using the library’s Ahnentafels, but I can’t find the books in the catalog because I can’t spell it.

 (posted by Cristina & Sarah)


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