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Genealogy or Family History? Is there a difference?

Even seasoned professionals argue about whether there is a difference between Genealogy and Family History and, rightly or wrongly, both terms are used interchangeably by most of the population. Genealogy seems to be more prevalent in the USA while Family History is used more frequently these days in the UK. In Australia, we have long used a mix of British and American English and tend to understand terms used in both countries.

Some dictionaries even refer to each term being a synonym of the other which does nothing to help arguments either way. My favourite reference, however, is the English Oxford Dictionary which defines Genealogy as:

“a line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor”;

and Family History as:

“The history of a family; a narrative about this. In later use also: the study of a family or families; genealogy as an area of research.”

This indicates that Genealogy is the family tree and Family History is our ancestors’ story.

While many people will both agree and disagree with my view, it is one I always discuss very early on with people who are just starting out on their family history journey. Most people don’t really think about it in advance and certainly I didn’t when I took my first faltering research steps. Usually genealogists/family historians start out wondering who their ancestors were and where they came from. Then, as they progress and broaden their search, people become interested in and even fascinated by the stories and social histories which emerge from their research.

In 2013 the FamilySearch wiki quoted Google’s Adwords statistics which indicated that Genealogy internet searches outnumber Family History by nearly two to one in the English-language world. A further analysis of these statistics would be interesting to determine which major English-speaking countries prefer which term.

Does it really matter which term people use? I confess I’m a purist and prefer the distinction between the terms to be understood and adhered to in the right context. However, I’m nothing if not flexible and in reality, what matters is that people jump in and get started (or indeed become re-energised) in researching their ancestors’ lives. If you’re reading this post, then clearly you’re already well underway.

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