Friday, August 14, 2009

My Umpty-Great Grandparents

Despite my exalted status as a genuine, card-carrying genealogist, there are still many issues I wrestle with that are probably old-hat to more experienced members of the profession. One of these issues is what to call my "umpty-great" grandparents.

This dilemma arose fairly early in my ancestral research. On both my parents' sides of the family, I already knew my ancestors back to my own great-grandparents, so I knew their names and what to call them. As I worked my way backward on the Pellman side, I could get no further than my great-great-grandfather, William Henry Pellman, so again no problem. Thanks to the excellent genealogical work of my late cousin, Al Hadad, I had also compiled the list of Schimmels, Meiers, and Trums back to my great-great-grandparents in each line. The issue arose when I started tracing the Jenner side of the family and got beyond Moses Johnson Jenner, my great-great-great-grandfather. Saying or typing three "greats" wasn't all that problematic, but when trying to describe my Revolutionary War patriot ancestor, Stephen Jenner, I started getting tongue-tied. Stephen was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather -- that's five "greats" -- and I tended to lose track of where I was, both typing and saying it.

When my daughter and I were preparing for our visit to his burial site, I remember how silly I felt saying, "We're going to try to find the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather who fought in the American Revolution," as I counted on my fingers. And it got downright ridiculous when I said we were also going to Woodbury "to find the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Jenner I." Typing it just now I accidentally put in one too many "greats" and had to go back and delete it! First I tried abbreviating it to "gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-great-grandfather," but that just sounded even siller -- as if I'd suddenly developed a severe stammer. Then I tried "my seven-times-great grandfather," but someone actually asked me, "What makes him seven times as great as your other grandfather?" So, I finally settled on "umpty-great" because more people seemed to understand what I meant, and I don't think they really cared whether he had five, six, or seven "greats" in front of "grandfather". They really only needed to understand it was a direct ancestor several generations before me.

Things reached a surreal level of ridiculousness when I learned that I was descended from Charlemagne and tried to figure out a meaningful way to explain that there should be 38 "greats" in front of grandfather! A single exclamation point seems inadequate to describe how ludicrous that seemed to me, so I actually considered following my previous sentence with 38 exclamation points for appropriate emaphasis. One thing I knew for certain: I wasn't about to say or write "great" 38 times in front of grandfather. No way!

The Internet hasn't been a great deal of help in resolving this problem so far. On various genealogy websites -- and I have visited hundreds of them -- I have encountered numerous forms of short-hand notation for umpty-great grandparents, including (for Charlemagne):
  • "38-times-great-grandfather"

  • "38x-great-grandfather"

  • "38-great-grandfather"

  • "38-g grandfather"

  • "38th generation great-grandfather"

  • "38th great-grandfather"

  • and the extremely succinct "38ggf"
None of these seems entirely satisfactory. Each has pros and cons. 38ggf, for example, is compact and suitable for a short-hand notation while doing research, but seems a disrespectfully brief description to give a man of Charlemagne's importance. 38th great-grandfather is okay, but seems grammatically confusing, as if Charlemagne #38 out of what should be no more than four great-grandfathers. 38th generation great-grandfather is probably the most descriptive of the alternatives, but again seems technically incorrect, since Charlemagne is actually in the 39th generation prior to me. 38-g grandfather only saves four letters, so I would prefer to just type 38-great-grandfather and leave no doubt what that g stands for (I wouldn't want anyone thinking he only weighed 38 grams!). 38x-great-grandfather sounds vaguely like poor Charlemagne might be my ex-38th-great-grandfather -- as if I would kick him out of the family! And, while 38-times-great-grandfather seems to me the most technically correct shorthand, it still leaves the possibility that some of my non-genealogy-buff friends and family would get the impression that Charlemagne had been my great-grandfather 38 times. Would they wonder if he was ever going to try for 39?

So I'm hoping that some sagacious member of the genealogical community can give me some suggestions on satisfactorily resolving this nomenclature issue. If you have any suggestions, please leave them as comments to this blog posting.


  1. I shall await with anticipatory joy for the answer to your dilemma for I have the same on too. Only mine are at least five generations of Thomas Dowd's


  2. I enjoyed reading this post, although it left me with a good dose of jealously. Oh, to be able to have that problem, but as an African-American researcher, whose roots are grouned in slavery, I don't have the pleasure (or the frustration?) of knowing even the names of my umpety grands, and though I press on just trying to find out who parented my great-grandparents (slaves), I know that the odds are against me. Still, though, I congratulate you on your research and I know that your family must, too! :)