Tips from the Pros: One Man’s Highway… from Michael John Neill

You can read the language and know the meaning of every word, but do you really understand the question or the concept? Sometimes misinterpreting is easier than you think.

During a recent conversation with a relative, we were discussing the proximity of my home to our children’s school. Our rural locale means the trip is a good distance, essentially from the western end of the district to somewhat east of center. The relative asked, “How do you cross the highway?” I thought he was kidding and I nearly jokingly replied, “We stop at the intersection with the county blacktop. We look both ways. If there is no oncoming traffic, we cross the highway.”

I then realized he did not mean the state highway a few miles from our home. Instead he meant the interstate, which runs parallel to the state highway, has few overpasses in our area and requires a seven-mile drive to an on-ramp. I then gave a more appropriate answer and avoided making a fool of myself.

Have you ever read something in a document and thought you knew what it meant? Are you certain? Could something be reasonably interpreted in a different way? Is there a word that might have more than one connotation or meaning? And when your ancestor answered a question for a census taker or a county clerk was he sure of what the questioner meant or did he answer a “different” question–the question he thought he heard? That’s something to think about when those answers vary from one enumeration or record to another.

Remember, one man’s highway is another man’s interstate. Your ancestor might have given the answer to the question he thought he heard, not the one written on the document.

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3 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: One Man’s Highway… from Michael John Neill

  1. One of the most common places I have found this to happen is on death records where a child of the deceased is asked for parents, and gives the names of his own rather than those of the deceased.

  2. My third great grandfather gave different locations for his birth each time he was asked at the births of his 3 children. I suspect the question may have been asked as “where are you from” rather than “where were you born” – or at least that’s what he heard. The three different locations were actually more help in tracking the family than the consistent answer another grandfather gave – he’s a brick wall.

  3. Thank you for the reminder of language differences. Even your article contained a hidden example of potential confusion. Being from Los Angeles, I would have no idea what you meant by “county blacktop.” How would you know if it was county blacktop, state blacktop, or city blacktop? They all look the same to me.

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