Genealogy is the process of compiling a family history which may involve putting together a pedigree and demonstrating kinship connections. The etymology of genealogy, pedigree, and kinship follow.
The etymology of genealogy is pretty straight forward: “genealogy” entered into the English language about 1300 from the Old French “genealogie” which had evolved from the Late Latin “genealogia” meaning “tracing of a family.” Latin had borrowed this term from the Greek “genealogia” which was composed of “genea” meaning “generation, descent” plus “-logia” meaning “the study of.”
In Old English, the word for “genealogy” was “folctalu” which meant “folk tale.” The use of “genealogy” to mean “study of family trees” dates to 1768.
The origin of “pedigree” can be traced back to the Old French “pied de gru” which means “foot of the crane.” At this point you need to ask: What does a bird’s foot have to do with tracing descent? To understand how this came about, we must go back to old manuscripts—meaning documents written by hand—where descent was recorded by a forked sign showing father, mother, and child. This looked by a bird’s footprint, hence it was “pied de gru” which then became “pe de gru” in Anglo-French and eventually “pedigree” in English. The “gree” ending seems to have emerged in Middle English by an association with “degree.”
In genealogy, the pedigree is an attempt at presenting family information in an easily readable chart. The chart provides family history in terms of relationships.
Kinship is about the web of social relationships that connects people. The vocabulary that we use for these different relationships—mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, son, daughter, and so on—often seem to be not only normal, but somehow “natural.” Here are some of the basic English kinship terms:
Mother: comes from the Old English “modor” which was derived from the Proto-Germanic “mothær” which in turn is from Proto-Indio-European “*mater-”.
Father: comes from the Old English “fæder” which is from the Proto-Germanic “*fader” which is from the Proto-Indo-European “*pɘter”. The phonetic shift of “p” to “f” is often cited by linguists as a classic example of Grimm’s Law. The change from “ter” to “ther” reflects a widespread phonetic shift in Middle English.
Brother: comes from the Old English “broþor” which is from the Proto-Germanic “*brother” which is from the Proto-Indo-European root “*bhrater.”
Sister: comes from the Old English “sweostor” which is from the Proto-Germanic “*swestr-” which is from the Proto-Indo-European root “*swesor.”
Daughter: comes from the Old English “dohtor” which is from the Proto-Germanic “*dochter” which is from the Proto-Indo-European root “*dhugheter.”
Son: comes from the Old English “sunu” which is from the Proto-Germanic “*sunuz” which is from the Proto-Indo-European root “*su(e)-nu-”.
The kinship terms described above seem to describe biological relationships which should be universal, that is, found among all people regardless of the language which they speak. However, when the English-speaking colonists in North America encountered the Iroquois they found that simply translating the word “mother” didn’t work: unlike the English, the Iroquois had more than one mother. Among the Iroquois, the mother’s sister was also called mother and therefore her children were considered siblings—that is, they were called brother and sister rather than cousin. Similarly, the father’s brother was also called father and his children were called brother and sister rather than cousin. In other words, as natural as the English kinship terminology system may seem, it is not universal.
While genealogists often seek to trace genetic lineages, there is a caution when dealing with American Indian records. While the records may record individuals as brothers or sisters, or mother or father, these may not be the same as the English terms.