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"Mastering Genealogical Proof" and French Genealogy - Part 7


U - Very Long climb

What with one thing and another, we have fallen a tad behind Dear Myrtle's MPG Study Group on Dr. Thomas Jones's "Mastering Genealogical Proof". They discussed Chapter Seven a couple of weeks ago and we come to it here only now.

In truth, there is little of urgency. Chapter Seven discusses how to write a Genealogical Proof Summary, giving formats so exquisitely precise and clear that one could almost call them templates. Many of those on Dear Myrtle's discussion panel and those listeners writing in their comments, as well as Dear Myrtle herself pointed out that this was not so much a lesson in genealogy or research but one in how to write clearly and communicate one's proof well. Naturally, the entire chapter also applies to a Genealogical Proof Summary using evidence taken from French sources; foreign sources are no excuse for logic and clarity to tumble by the wayside.

What we may be able to contribute by way of suggestion or assistance toward maintaining a pristine style when using French sources could come only from our own guide. We use two books, both by the inestimable Fowler (with his brother in one case and a modernising editor in another): "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage"1 and "The King's English"2. Generally, we follow him to the letter, though there are times when our native recalcitrance will send us on a little spree of stubborn adherence to a practice he disdains. His advice on French usage could be quite handy to those of you writing up a Genealogical Proof Summary based on dozens of actes d'état civil, recensements and French notarial records.

French Words: "Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth -- greater indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners. That is the guiding principle alike in the using and pronouncing of French words in English writing and talk. To use French words that your reader or hearer does not know or does not fully if you were one of the select few to whom French is second nature when he is not one of those few (and it is ten thousand to one that neither you nor he will be) is inconsiderate and rude. (Dictionary, p. 212)

Every writer who suspects himself [of wanting to use many French words]...should...remember that acquisitiveness and indiscriminate display are pleasing to contemplate only in birds and savages and children.  (Dictionary, p. 212)

Foreign Words: The usual protest must be made, to be treated no doubt with the usual disregard. The difficulty is that French, Latin, and other words are now also English, though the fiction that they are not is still kept up by italics and (with French words) conscientious efforts at pronunciation....To say distrait instead of absent or absent-minded, bien entendu for of course, sans for without ... quand même for anyhow, penchant for liking or fancy, premier for first, coûte que coûte for at all pretension and nothing else. (King's English, pp. 23-24)

But speaking broadly, what a writer effects by using these ornaments is to make us imagine him telling us he is a wise fellow and one that hath everything handsome about him, including a gentlemanly acquaintance with the French language.  (King's English, p. 24)


In short, do not assume that, because you are writing about your French ancestors, you must splatter their native vocabulary across your pages. If you are writing in English for English-speaking readers, then you must use French only where there is no English equivalent and when you do, especially with French genealogical sources, you would do well to define your terms.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy 


1 Fowler, Henry Watson and Gowers, Ernest, ed.. "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage". Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.

2 Fowler, H.W. and Fowler, F.G.. "The King's English : Abridged for School Use". Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1908.