Friday, February 10, 2012

Word of the Day: Pedigree

Flipping open the American Heritage College Dictionary for inspiration, the word PEDIGREE caught my eye.

PEDIGREE: a line of ancestors; a lineage. A family tree. A chart of an individual’s ancestors used in human genetics to analyze Mendelian inheritance, esp. of familial diseases. From Middle English, from Latin: pe de grue, foot of crane, the resemblance of a crane’s foot to the lines of succession on a genealogical chart.*

Genealogy is a little hobby of mine. I’ve listened to family stories, wondering….

Grandmother Anna Christiana fed hungry train-riding hobos out her back door near the railroad tracks in the 1930s. Grandfather Rudy, the baker from Alsace, made bread for the Union Army during the Civil War. 

Grandmother Matilda had a child out of wedlock as a teenager in the 1840s. The father forever unknown, the child became Granddad Piper; he grew up strong enough to crush a clam in his fist. Grumpy Little Grannie, Nancy Payne, lied about her age to the census man, smoked a pipe, and lived to be 92. 

The Old Gentleman, Thomas Leary, had a flowing white mustache in his last photo. He emigrated from County Wexford, Ireland, married a widowed woman with a child, and frittered her money away buying rounds for his buddies in Philadelphia saloons. 

Gran Sadie, a white woman, raised an orphaned black child as her own, in the South, around 1900. Her husband Charles was famous for the quality of his cured hams; a smokehouse full of his hams was better than money in the bank. He guarded them with a shotgun and shot his own shadow on the barn one night, thinking it was a ham-thief. 

Gramps Richard emigrated from England, c. 1670. He was an indentured servant who gained his freedom and died a land-owner, a tobacco planter. Aside from a house and acreage, his last will and testament distributed livestock, pewter plates, candlesticks, and feather beds among his many children.

No trace of a house remains at the site he farmed 300 years ago, on Gargatha Creek, Virginia. Nearby, in the silent winter marsh, cranes catch small menhaden fish, as they have for thousands of years.

Yes. Pedigree. A crane’s foot, a very gnarled, clawed, bumpy, crane’s foot. 

*The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.


  1. I love that the etymology of pedigree amounts to being the foot of a crane. Like window deriving from wind hole, there's a definitive connection between meaning and word. I really like this post.

  2. I got lucky-- but I always do when I open a dictionary. The trick is remembering the word I originally wanted to find!

  3. Oh, I love this. Having just become interested in genealogy myself, I would love to have stories with this level of detail about ancestors of mine.

  4. Thanks-- I guess there have been so many story-tellers in my family that I take it for granted, so thanks for reminding me that I'm lucky to know these little tidbits.
    My mother just got a treasure trove in the mail from a cousin-- with letters and photos, some over 100 years old. We're still going through them, but as humble as the objects are, I get a thrill out of holding objects that my great-grandmother held. She died in the flu pandemic of 1918, and I would have loved to have known her.