What invalid means in military parlance
Reader Carol Bickel was stumped: “I cannot find a good definition for the meaning of ‘Invalid’ on the jacket of a military record.”
And what it means here is a really good question, isn’t it?
Because The Legal Genealogist is sure that somebody else is sitting out there doing the whole IN-vuh-lid or in-VAH-lid bit…
Because this is one of those words with two very different pronunciations … and two very different meanings.
And because we can only figure out which of those two pronunciations and meanings is correct by considering the context.
If we were to consider this as a plain legal interpretation question, we might turn to Black’s Law Dictionary and find that something is invalid when it’s “inadequate to its purpose; not of binding force or legal efficacy; lacking in authority or obligation.”1 That’s the in-VAH-lid bit. It’s an adjective, a word used to describe something else.2
But if we think about this in the context of sending people off to fight, we’d be more likely to turn to think of the word as a noun: a word that refers to a thing or person.3 That’s the IN-vuh-lid bit, and it’s a word that’s been used in connection with American soldiers since the Revolution.
On 26 August 1776, the Continental Congress passed the first pension law for soldiers and sailors in patriot service, providing benefits to those “who shall lose a limb in any engagement, or be so disabled in the service of the United States of America as to render him incapable afterwards of getting a livelihood.”4 The law further provided “that all such officers and soldiers that may be entitled to the aforesaid pension, and are found to be capable of doing guard or garrison duty, shall be formed in a corps of invalids.”5
By the time of the Civil War, the form to apply for a pension was entitled “Declaration for Original Invalid Pension.”6
And of course that usage wasn’t something the Americans came up with. The origins of the word itself come from the Latin word invalidus meaning not strong, and it’s been used as a noun for “infirm or sickly person,” specifically as to disabled military men, since at least 1709.7 And the British even use it as a verb: “to force somebody to leave the armed forces because of an illness or injury.”8
Now… is it possible that in this particular case it’s in-VAH-lid rather than IN-vuh-lid? Sure. For example, it’s possible that the stamp might have been indicating something such as an invalid enlistment (one of no legal force).
Is it likely? No. In context of a military service record, it’s far more likely to be telling us we need to be looking for evidence of injury or disability that was purported to be service-related.
Or, to make a long story short, context matters.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “The meaning of that word,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 21 Mar 2023).
- Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 642, “invalid.” ↩
- See generally Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (https://www.merriam-webster.com/ : accessed 21 Mar 2023), “adjective.” ↩
- See generally ibid., “noun.” ↩
- Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 34 vols. (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1906), 5: 702-705. ↩
- Ibid. at 705. ↩
- See Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, “Anatomy of a Union Civil War Pension File,” NGS News Magazine 34 (July-Sept 2008): 42-47. ↩
- See Online Etymology Dictionary (https://www.etymonline.com/ : accessed 21 Mar 2023), “invalid.” ↩
- See Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries (https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/ : accessed 21 Mar 2023), “invalid.” ↩