Saturday, January 14, 2012

Am I a Genealogist?

I rarely call myself a genealogist and when I do, I cringe on the inside and am sure someone will smack me or hang a scarlet letter “F” for fraud around my neck. 

I “do genealogy” just fine.  I “study my family history” with no problem. But whenever I have to use the word, “Genealogist” in conjunction with myself, it doesn’t feel right. 

I never really thought about it too much and just avoided that word until the hoopla around the interweb happened and that made me think that of course everyone is talking about me, right?

“Did you hear that Debbie once said that she was a genealogist?  (And did you see that weird face she made when she said it?  What *was* THAT??)  How can she be a genealogist when she doesn’t do this all day?  She doesn’t even do this every day.  She works full time doing something totally not even related to family or history and her children take up most of the rest of her time!  She doesn’t even own her own copy of Evidence Explained.  Can you freaking believe the gall of that woman to call herself a, ‘genealogist’!”

That’s what you all were saying, huh?  I knew it.

So here is the thing.  Really and truly, genealogy is my hobby.  I do it for fun and when I can.  I took a 7-year break from it altogether when small beings sucked out my brain cells I had my children.  I work outside the home.  I homeschool.  I have a book club.  I have playgroups and karate and scrapbooking and traveling to places not related to family history.  So how in the world can I be a “genealogist”?

Because of our homeschool and our love of watching cool things, we do a lot of science experiments around our house.  You can find homemade trebuchets and camera obscuras lying around next to the magnet kits and the create your own zombie candy kits.  But does that make us “scientists”? 

If you have a garden in the back, are you a “horticulturalist”?  If you mix up smelly crap for your bath, are you an “aromatherapist”?  If you go on a bike ride with your family, are you a “bicyclist”?

I had figured that to be an “ist” you had to be trained in it somehow.  Some classes or experience.  If you toss together a vase of flowers, are you a florist.  No, you likely need some classes, right?  If you pound out Chopsticks on the piano, are you a “pianist”?  No, you need some experience, don’t you?  So who decides how much experience or how many classes you need before you can be an “ist”?

Some “ists” need a certification or degree (think: “cosmetologist” or “dentist”- just because I trim my bangs or yank out my kid’s disgusting dangling tooth doesn’t mean I’m either of these things).  But again, not every “ist” needs these things. 

That’s the moment I realized that I should really look up what “ist” means.  According to Merriam-Webster, “ist” is a suffix and it means:

1 a : one that performs a (specified) action <cyclist> : …

2: one that specializes in a (specified) art or science or skill <geologist> <ventriloquist>

3: one that adheres to or advocates a (specified) doctrine or system or code of behavior <socialist> <royalist> <hedonist> or that of a (specified) individual <Calvinist> <Darwinist>

Does my hobby fit into definition 1 (“one that performs a specified action”).  Genealogy is the study of genes and family lines.  I do this.  Check. 

Does my hobby fit into definition 2 (“one that specializes in a specified art or science or skill”)?  In order to determine this one, I decided to look up, “specializes” and again, Merriam-Webster gave me this, “to concentrate one's efforts in a special activity, field, or practice.  I think that being a member of several genealogical societies and volunteering for two, writing a blog, writing a couple of books, taking several (hundred) classes, attending local genealogy events, reading every book I can get my hands on, etc. all count as “concentrating.”  Well, golly jeepers.  I specialize!  Check.

Does my hobby fit into definition 3 (“one that adheres to or advocates a specified doctrine or system or code of behavior”)?  First of all, I don’t think this definition applies, as genealogy isn’t any one form of dogma or doctrine.  But putting that aside, I think genealogy has so many different doctrines and systems that to subscribe to and advocate just one may be putting yourself at a disadvantage.  I try to stay open to different, new systems and ideas, so that I can take a little from each and make something work for me.  But I do have systems that work for me, so I do fit the definition technically.  And from being around you genealogists, I know you have a code of behavior (is there a nicer, more helpful group of “ists” in the universe?!?!  I don’t think so…).  I try to uphold that, too.

I also looked up the word, “Dentist,” to see if has some special wording about licensing and it does (“one who is skilled in and licensed to practice the…”).  But you know what doesn’t?  Genealogist.  “A person who traces or studies the descent of persons or families.” 

Should Merriam-Websters be formally modified?  I would fully support that.  Dentists have been around since 7000 BC, using creepy tools like these:

Despite being practice for thousands of years, Wikipedia tells me that the first dental school with licensing didn’t pop up until 1840 (“OMG, she even quotes Wikipedia!”).  So for a time, if there were a Merriam-Websters, it wouldn’t have listed “licensed” under dentist.

But until the definition changes, even though I think this does a disservice to those of you who are professional, certified and/or really awesome genealogists, I must continue to use my rudimentary, creepy researching tools and say it…



  1. I hear you and I love it! Great post!

  2. What an awesome post! I was laughing out loud at the "continue to use my rudimentary, creepy researching tools..." I'm right there with you. Working full time, going to school for something not even remotely related to genealogy but I love it and I like saying I'm a genealogist - even if right now I only whisper it to myself sometimes.


  3. Society member, volunteer, author times two, and yet you hesitate to call yourself a genealogist? A characteristic of the best of the breed: humility.

  4. Say it loud and say it proud, Debbie! Thank you for posting this, I couldn't have said it better (... and I tried, but mine wasn't nearly as entertaining)!