The Disgusting Words in Genealogy

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” ~L.P. Hartley

There are times while researching your family’s history that you come across a document that makes you want to smack someone. The words on the page scream in your ears and chill your soul.

Deaf and dumb. Idiotic. Defective. Lunatic. The N word.

In today’s society, they are disgusting words. But that hasn’t always been the case.

The Progress (White Earth, Minnesota), 14 July 1888.

It wasn’t just newspapers. Consider the heading on this document:defective-dependent-delinquentThat little gem is from a special schedule in the 1880 U.S. Federal census: “Supplemental Schedules of the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes” (sometimes referred to as the Defective Schedule or the DDD Schedule.) Included on that schedule were people classified as Insane, Idiots, Deaf-Mutes, Blind, Inhabitants in Prison, Homeless Children, and Paupers and Indigents in Institutions.

About Those Words

I wrote about the 1880 DDD Schedule in a post titled “Do You Have a Defective Ancestor?” Recently on Twitter, @nickidewbear said:

This got me to thinking about that title and why I didn’t put “defective” in quotes, as she suggested in a later tweet.

Defective was the word that was used on the document. It was not a euphemism. It was how the Federal government classified those people. It was the government saying, “These people are defective, dependent, and/or delinquent.”

The Federal government in 1880. Not me today.

Why That Matters

Accuracy is paramount in our research. When we change language or put things in quotes to soften the brunt of disgusting-sounding words, we are not being accurate.

We need to record the words — as disgusting and offensive as we find them to be. They were the words used by the people creating the records. They are their words. It’s not up to us to change them.

A Bit of My Background

I come at this issue from two different sides. I am a historian.

I am also the mother of a profoundly Deaf son. He was born Deaf. He does not speak. He also has other challenges that he struggles with every single day of his life.

If he had been living in 1880, he would have been on the Defective schedule. The Federal government would have called him Defective. I’d like to believe that I, as his mother, would not have called him that or thought of him that way. I’d like to believe that in 1880, I would have thought of him as I do today: my son.

So when I record the words used by our ancestors, I do so with a heavy heart. But I also know that softening those documents for today’s sensibilities do not serve any purpose except to make us feel better.

We Also Shouldn’t Excuse

We cannot judge people of 100 years ago for the words they used. We can examine them. We can study them. We can see what they mean in context. But we cannot judge them.

Nor can we excuse them. It is easy to rationalize away their word choices. “Oh, when they said ‘deaf and dumb,’ they meant ‘dumb’ in the sense of ‘mute’ or silent.” No, sometimes they really did mean “dumb” like we’d use that word today: Stupid. If you were Deaf — especially if you couldn’t speak — your intelligence was questioned.

What we can do is read the words of the time and try to put them in context, to try to understand without judging and without excusing.


Posted: November 12, 2015.

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  • Yes, even though many pejorative words (by today’s standards) were used to describe people, often they did not reflect how much they were loved. I have ancestor who had 10 children, 1 who was deaf and 1 who was blind. They went to the deaf and blind schools in Wisconsin in the 1870’s/1880’s. The blind child died when he was 14 of a fever and his obituary shows how much he was cherished by family and community. “[His death] caused a deep pang of sorrow to the hearts of his many friends in this community. The deceased from early childhood, had been overshadowed by the Greatest affliction that can possibly befall anyone, the loss of sight, which obliterated from his vision the glorious sun-light and the beauty and grandeur of nature, he was blessed with such acute senses of hearing and feeling, and with such buoyancy of spirit that his loss of sight was in a degree repaired.”
    As historians, we always have to look deeper and see the context in which the words were used.
    I enjoy your blog and this is an excellent discussion of issues we face as genealogists.

  • Things were still not so good in the 1940s. My sister’s death certificate in Kentucky listed her as a “monstrocity.” My dad never told my mom about the extent of her problems. I was always told her lungs weren’t developed. I cried when I saw those words.

  • I cringed when I saw the word “inmate” used to describe two ancestors, one in an “asylum”, another in an “old people’s home”. None of these words are officially used today. My immediate reaction to “inmate” was to assign it to today’s definition. They were “incarcerated’ after a fashion but only the one in the asylum by the court. Reading these words really forced me back to their day and the use of words then. I often concentrate on the social history of my ancestors, but I need to refer more often to books I have about historical legal terminology for further understanding.

    • You’re right, Denise. It’s important to get the legal definition of these terms as well. That in itself can give us insight.

  • things have not changed all that much. While telling a story last week to my hairdresser, she called the person a “retard”. While I chastised her a bit, that fact that we still have folks who use such words is real, and really sad.

  • Amy, this is another thought-provoking post. I believe we get ourselves in a bit of trouble when we place presentism on former times. We can’t make judgment calls for that time period based on values today.

    I have an ancestor that was labeled “idiot” in the census. As I followed her life through various court records, it’s easy to see she would never be able to live on her own. I don’t know what her condition was. But, my heart goes out to the family that cared for her, losing her parents, and eventually passing away while living with her brother and his family.

  • I have an ancestor that was 84 years old when he died in 1864. Raised a large family, ran a farm, married several times. His Will stated he was Insane. He was most likely showing signs of Dementia. Thank you for this post.

  • Thank you for approaching this subject in such a professional manner. I agree with you that our generations do not have the right or privilege of imposing our “politically correct” meaning to words applied to physical attributes of anyone else during a time in history that we did not personally experience. To change the words to suit ones-self in today’s society is to change history and that we simply cannot do no matter how hard we try. It may make one feel better, but to what end. I agree the many words used by our ancestors are egregious (not to mean I think they are an error), but that they are awful. And unless we knew the affected person personally and had interactions with them daily, which I’m pretty sure none of us did during the 1800’s and early 1900’s then to try and placate yourself by explaining away what we felt was the real problem is just as awful in my eyes. I’m certain that many of our younger researchers will disagree with me but after have more than 45 years researching on my own, professionally and being educated in the field I have come to accept who my ancestors were and how they applied their vernacular use of words overall. If I am offended by that then that’s my problem not theirs.

    • Thank you, Phillip. The best we can do to see how these words were intended are in legal settings and censuses (where we have he enumerators’ instructions.) Beyond that, it is conjecture.

  • Amy, I would like to share information when our paths cross and if you wish. I have two presentations on this record set. “Using Non-Population Schedules for Context and Evidence” and “Insanity in the 19th Century: One Family’s Story”. Both rely on the non-population schedules. The latter is about my great-grand uncle who was an “inmate” of an asylum from 1872 to 1905. I obtained his medical records from two of the three asylums where he resided through the courts in 2014. After presenting these two talks, I have discovered that many more genealogists are identifying individuals who resided in asylums, particularly in the 1900-1950 time frame. Unfortunately, people who “just disappear” are often discovered to be “inmates” in asylums. In my presentation, I use the words they used at the time but explain why.

  • Amy, thank you for sharing another valuable post about researching. Even though our PC culture has made us over sensitive to certain words, the fact remains that those very words were the ones used in the past. People need to get over being so sensitive and stick with the facts. We should not rewrite history to suit our wishes.
    Keep up the great work!

  • I’m new to genealogy. My interest is in finding out as much as possible about the lived and felt lives of the family members who came before me. The historical context in which they lived is critical to acquiring this understanding. Use of language is an important clue to the “feel” of a time period not my own.

  • I obtained the records of two ancestors who were confined in a mental institution in the 1920s. Despite the diagnoses they were given, neither was “insane,” one had epilepsy and the other, a woman, had severe alcoholism. Neither of these people could live in society as it was at that time, and at least they were not homeless. The records are thought-provoking to me about the kinds of “defects” that are still stigmatized in our own times. And, yes, they were tough reading. But I gained a unique insight into the lives of two people whose stories were probably told nowhere else. And there was a fair amount of genealogical information included in the case histories.

  • First the good news: I really appreciate your articles, and believe their overall quality is very high.
    The rest of my comments will likely be as popular as a skunk at a picnic, but here goes:
    I am not the least bit offended or disgusted by the terms used many years ago in various documents. Applying modern standards to past generations is foolish and illogical. In most instances, our ancestors were simply being matter-of-fact in their descriptions and not being malicious. What is more concerning is our own generation’s disturbing tendency to ignore reality. Just using a euphemism does nothing to change the handicap being described. In the 19th century the term “idiot” was used to describe some of the same people that in the mid-20th century would be described as “mentally retarded” (which was itself an attempt to soften the description), and more recently would be labelled “developmentally challenged” because the retardation term had become pejorative. There is no doubt that in the future yet another even more fuzzy and awkward term will replace the “challenged” term as it in turn becomes pejorative.
    In case someone is thinking I am uncaring about such individuals, you would be wrong. My niece and god-daughter was born with such problems, and will never be able to live independently. Her intellectual handicaps do not cause me to love her any less, but I feel no need to mask her condition. It does not bother me the least if she is referred to as “retarded” or some similar term; it is what she is. I am not ashamed of her, and will not dishonor her by using words that minimize or hide the reality of her condition.
    Our modern society is full of absurdities regarding not only psychological conditions, but obviously also on gender and race. If our ancestors could see it, they would be convinced we had gone insane. Just messing around with the terminology does not change the facts on the ground, contrary to what many evidently now believe. I for one prefer to spend more time in the real world rather than an imaginary one. Call me a dinosaur–I won’t be offended.