Over-egging the pudding

St Bartholomews Groton A view of St. Bartholomew's Church in Groton, Suffolk.

I wear several hats at NEHGS. In addition to editing Vita Brevis, I am the Society’s Editor-in-Chief, with advisory roles in the Publications, Library, and Website divisions; I write and edit books, including a genealogy of the Robert Winthrop family of New York due out in 2017; and I work with the editorial teams of the Society’s magazine (American Ancestors) and the Mayflower Descendant journal. A trend I’ve noticed in some of the projects on which I have worked might be called over- or under-egging the pudding. By this I mean the habit – picked up, no doubt, from researchers’ work with genealogical software – of abbreviating terms that should be given in full or, conversely, of undue (over) emphasis. Here are three examples:

[These] abbreviations are (in my view) an eyesore...

The first, and the easiest to correct, involves the way months are used in genealogical summaries. In general, in Register style, we spell out months’ names in full. All well and good, but when it comes to writing the shortened form – in a child’s entry, perhaps – I too often see months rendered as

Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, and Dec

What’s wrong? A couple of things. This style is an artifact of genealogical programs that render months in three letter abbreviations. When it comes time to put the genealogical material into publishable form, however, these abbreviations are (in my view) an eyesore; worse, they can be misleading. The eye reads Jan for Jun, Mar for May, Jun for Jul – and, of course, in English common usage these months should all end with a period. Finally, NEHGS style deplores abbreviating months under four letters in length, and so we prefer to see

Jan., Feb., March, April, May, June, July, Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec.

[One] should automatically note these instances and correct them...

My other two examples are related to one another. In genealogical software programs, the style for locations is

Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts

We are meant to understand that Suffolk is Suffolk County, but that is not how American localities work in practice. Again, when translating one’s research into a form meant for publication, one should automatically note these instances and correct them: Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts. (I would add, further, that unless an American state has two locations with the same name, but in separate counties, listing the county name might be over-egging the pudding.)

By the same token, we should understand the nomenclature traditions in other countries. Using the example of Ipswich in Suffolk, England, it seems to me incorrect to render this place in American style: Ipswich, Suffolk County [or County Suffolk], England. In English terms, it is the town of Ipswich in [the County of] Suffolk, while the New England Boston is the city of Boston in Suffolk County.

Of course there are exceptions: the County Palatine of Durham in England is generally rendered County Durham, while the County of Devon boasts two peerages named for it: the Earls of Devon and the Dukes of Devonshire. As a rule, adding -shire to an English, Scottish, Irish, or Welsh county name is correct, but there are always traps for the unwary: Somersetshire and Dorsetshire both seem to me a bit much, while there is no way to turn Hampshire into anything but Hampshire!

Scott C. Steward

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward