Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Lexicographical Puddler

Sometimes the most challenging linguistic problems are encountered in your own language. One of the few absolutes about language is that it changes over time and as much as we might try there is nothing we can do to stop it. Because of this, the genealogist will often encounter words or phrases that are unfamiliar, even in English. Sometimes, even familiar words might be used in ways that are different from current usage. One of the best available resources for figuring out the meaning of obscure or archaic words is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Although many libraries have print copies, it is easiest to search the online version. The online version requires a subscription, but in many cases you can gain access through your library. On most public library websites you can find a list of databases to which the library subscribes. Many of these sites can be used remotely, simply by entering your library card number or logging in. Here is an example of the dictionaries and encyclopedias available at the Seattle Public Library, including the OED.

What is a Puddler?
With changes in technology and society, the occupations that people have change. As the occupations change so does the language. One unfamiliar occupation I have encountered is that of "puddler", a very common profession among my wife's Irish ancestors in Chicago, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Among these ancestors is Francis Donohoe, who is living in in 1850 in Birmingham, Pennsylvania (now a part of Pittsburgh).

A dictionary like Merriam-Webster will often do the job, but may require more digging and yield not quite as rich entries. For example searching for puddler will lead to the verb puddle which gives a rather circular definition, "to subject (iron) to the process of puddling". From here, we can look up puddling yielding the more useful definition of:
the process of converting pig iron into wrought iron or rarely steel by subjecting it to heat and frequent stirring in a furnace in the presence of oxidizing substances
However, the OED has a separate entry for puddler. The first sense is that of "a dabbler, an amateur (as it is used in the post's title). The second sense is the one we are looking for, that of "a person who puddles iron". There are dated examples included and a link directly to the relevant sense of the word puddle with further examples and etymological information. The entry reads:
5. trans. Metall. To heat and stir (molten pig iron) with iron oxide in a reverbatory furnace, so as to oxidize and remove the carbon and other impurities and produce wrought iron. Cf. puddling n. 4. Now hist.
The OED often provides a far richer and nuanced picture of the meaning and use of words, especially archaic words you might encounter in your genealogical research.

As a more genealogical aside, in this case, this unusual profession proved vital in connecting family that moved around a lot and did not leave many other records. It is important to remember that occupation information can prove very useful and shouldn't be ignored.


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  2. Linguistics + genealogy = perfect match!