Monday, November 18, 2013

False Friends

When I was in learning Italian, beginning in middle school, a teacher introduced us to the concept of "false friends." These are false cognates - words in Italian that sound similar to English words but don't have similar meanings. Some examples include:
  • fattoria - farm
  • camera - room
  • parenti - relatives

If you assume that they're real cognates and mean what it sounds like they mean (factory, camera, parents), you'll definitely be misled.

I sometimes have fun looking around my home and figuring out which of the things I own might be the "false friends" that would lead my descendants astray in their future genealogical research. A few examples come to mind. (I'm going to use Smith for all the surnames here, since the whole point is that they're not my family.)

  • When I was in 10th grade, my English class read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As was usually the case, the books belonged to the school, and we read them and then turned them back in to the teacher once the unit on the book was over. For reasons unbeknownst to me, a boy in my class, Alon Smith, wrote his name in the front cover of his book. Then, like he was supposed to, he returned it to the school. Fast forward one year: My sister Laura is in 10th grade, and her English class reads Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The only difference is that this year, the school has decided to replace the books, and so, as the last class to use the old books, Laura and her classmates are allowed to keep them. Sure enough, the copy she brings home is the copy that Alon Smith had used the previous year, with his name inside the front cover. It currently lives on the bookshelf in my old room at my parents' house. If this book survives the generations and remains in my family, what will that name lead my descendants to think? Probably not quite what I wrote above! Alon and I were friendly, and ran in the same circles, but anyone searching for the "real" reason why "his" book had become a part of our family library would be led astray if he thought that an intimate friendship or a romantic or familial relationship were part of it. (Of course, if someone were looking to find out where we'd lived or what high school we went to, Alon "Smith's" much more unusual name would be more likely to point them in the right direction in an index or an online search. Might he lead them back to us eventually?!)

  • Last week, at my parents' house, we spent some time watching old home videos. One shows a couple of bored adolescents dyeing Easter eggs (and one not-bored 7-year-old who can't get enough of saying "Happy Easter 1999!" to the camera and getting others to do the same), while off-screen, my dad and my aunt discuss the story behind a divorce. As we listened to this 15-year-old conversation, my mom looked at me and asked "Who are they talking about?" My mind went through the divorces in our family, none of which seemed to have the characteristics being discussed, and many of which hadn't yet occurred in 1999. My mom figured it out first: "The Smiths!" There is no identifying information in the conversation, and no one who didn't already know of the couple in question could ever have figured out who was being discussed. The divorce in question had happened probably decades earlier. While no one will be led to the Smiths (a completely unrelated family) by watching this old movie, can't you just imagine a casual researcher assuming a family relationship and, erroneously and perhaps unconsciously, assigning the back story of the Smiths' divorce to a couple in our family tree?

  • This one is a little less incidental and little more predictable: A couple of years ago, I purchased a 1961 Catholic Missal from a local thrift store for 99 cents. I was interested in it for the historical and liturgical context. Inside the front cover is the name Theresa Smith, and the next page has the names of several of her relatives. I knew when I bought it that this could be confusing for someone, someday, but the price was good and I was interested in the earlier iterations of the Mass, so I got it anyway. I have not marked it to indicate that the (thoroughly enumerated) family is not mine. I have not tried to find the family in question, or return it to them. (I bought it because I wanted to have it. Is that so wrong?)

Does anyone else ever think about what might mislead your future descendants? Pictures of random acquaintances you barely remember, marked-up books that you bought used, ephemera you rescued to return to descendants who you were never able to find? Do you do anything to mitigate that risk?


Nancy said...

This is a really interesting post and an even more interesting concept -- one I had never thought about. I'm going to watch out for false clues in my home now! Thanks so much for this post.

Kathleen Scarlett O'Hara Naylor said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Nancy!

wendy said...

Pictures are the worse "false friends" in my home. When I received boxes and albums many years ago, there would be names on the back (for some - not all, grr!) and I'd ask my mom who they were - she'd say "oh those are friends of Mom and Dad" (my grandparents) - so I started adding under their names "friends of ...." just to clarify. Great post and makes one think about the stuff they have that their descendants might find confusing!