Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the company of saints

It is useful to learn the words for "saint" in the languages of your ancestors. Saint names occur in surnames, church names and many place names. Knowing these words can help you make sense of records by letting you identify the names of people and places. In English, these terms are fairly simple; we use the same form for both male and female saints and have a single abbreviation St. In many European languages, there are different forms for different genders, and sometimes abbreviations and other special forms before names.

Saint in Spanish
In Spanish, the masculine form for "saint" is santo and the feminine form is santa. However, when followed by a name, the masculine form is usually the reduced form San, as in San Francisco (Saint Francis). Some exceptions with the full form include Santo Domingo and Santo Tómas.

Saint in French
In French, the masculine form is written the same as in English,
saint, and the feminine form has an extra "e", sainte. In saints names, these are typically abbreviate to St. and Ste., respectively. These abbreviated forms are very common in French Canadian place names and even in the US, such as St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve in Missouri. Labels on records in the Drouin Collection ($ Ancestry) point to the towns of St.-Evariste-de-Forsyth (Pope Evaristus) and Ste.-Marie (St. Mary).

Saint in Polish
While the words for "saint" in French, Spanish and many other languages are quite similar to English, in other languages they are unrecognizable. Take German Heilige (hl.), Albanian shenjtori (Sh.), Czech Svatý (Sv.), Finnish
Pyhä or Polish Święta (św.).

Let's look at an obituary from a Polish newspaper in Chicago. We know that names of
saints will be preceded by the abbreviation św. We can also guess that an obituary might mention a church or a cemetery. Looking up "church" and "cemetery" in a Polish dictionary gives us kościół and cmentarz.

We can identify four separate "saints". Having looked up the words for church and cemetery, we can make out a Church of "św. Jana Bożego" and a cemetery of "św. Marii". Using an educated guess and confirming it, we find that the church is St. John of God and the cemetery is St. Mary, a cemetery on the South Side of Chicago. The other "saints" are not as clear, but a little more digging reveals the first saint to be St. Casimir, which is related to a society he belonged to, and the fourth saint is not really a saint, but refers to the "blessed" sacraments. This points to the original meaning of "saint" which is "holy". English is actually unusual in the fact that it distinguishes between holy people (saints) and other holy things (Holy Family, Holy Trinity, etc.).

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