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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Greek, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

Don’t tell anybody, but The Legal Genealogist is on vacation.

I mean, seriously, on vacation and not comboing up with a speaking trip.

As in off playing around with family and the Mouse and a few flying broomsticks.

At least as much as I can considering the 1000 other obligations I have.

I can report definitively that butterbeer is really good stuff… at least in the frozen form. That the whole Hogwarts – Hogsmeade bit at Universal is seriously well done. And that 23,000-plus steps in one day for this computer-chair-addicted sloth means I may never walk again.

So you know what this means for this week, right?


Not a whole lot of time for blog posts. So it’ll be catch as catch can with a few miscellaneous looks at this goofy language we have to deal with in genealogical records as we continue with alphabet soup.

We’re up to the Ms by now here in 2018, and the word that often gives folks issues — especially in census records — starts with an M.

So the word for today is “mechanic.”

We all think of a mechanic today as someone covered in grease and oil who primarily works on cars or on great big machines in a factory somewhere. That’s even the definition you’ll find in modern dictionaries.1

That’s probably not the exact meaning as it was in, say, 1820, when the instructions to the assistant marshals who were taking the census read: “in the column of manufactures will be included not only all the persons employed in what the act more specifically dominates manufacturing establishments, but all those artificers, handcraftsmen, and mechanics whose labor is preeminently of the hand, and not upon the field.”2

Nope, the term mechanic at that time meant something different: by legal definition, a mechanic was a “workman employed in shaping and uniting materials, such as wood, metal, etc., into some kind of structure, machine, or other object, requiring the use of tools.”3 Or, in an ordinary dictionary definition described as archaic, “A manual labourer or artisan.”4

Now think about that for a minute.

Think about the breadth of that term.

A carpenter, by that definition, was a mechanic. So was a blacksmith. A stone mason. A painter. Even a candlemaker might be considered a mechanic, particularly if he was using tools to make decorative candles.

So in differentiating person A from person B, the term mechanic wasn’t as good as the census designers wanted.

Which is why, by 1870, the instructions to census takers directed: “Describe no man as a ‘mechanic’ if it is possible to describe him more accurately.”5 And the Census Bureau went further by 1900: “Avoid in all cases the use of the word ‘mechanic,’ and state whether a carpenter, mason, house painter, machinist, plumber, etc.”6

But for all those years of the census before 1870 and later, the term mechanic was a broad one… and may well not be telling us what we need to know about just what exactly that ancestor was doing to earn his — and his family’s — daily bread.


  1. See e.g. Oxford Dictionaries Online ( : accessed 18 June 2018), “mechanic” (“A skilled worker who repairs and maintains vehicle engines and other machinery”).
  2. Jason Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000 (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Census Bureau, 2000), PDF at 6.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 763, “mechanic.”
  4. Oxford Dictionaries Online ( : accessed 18 June 2018), “mechanic”.
  5. Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000, PDF at 16.
  6. Ibid., PDF at 31.
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