Reading Old Documents

Throughout In the Words of Women you’ll notice that spelling, capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and style differ considerably from 21st-century practices. What you see are not mistakes; they’re faithful reproductions of what we editors encountered in the manuscripts and diaries that we have excerpted. In this entry we explore some of the challenges we faced in reading and transcribing centuries-old documents and the decisions we made in sharing that material.

First, it should be said that we decided to reproduce the selections as they were written, that is with the spelling, punctuation, and usages largely intact. This was done to convey the flavor and style of both the individual writer and the period. For only two of the women, whose writing was so phonetic that it was impossible to read (except aloud, when it did make some sense), did we “translate” as well as transcribe. These were Benjamin Franklin’s wife Deborah and his sister, Jane Mecom.

When dealing with manuscripts it is of course necessary to be able to read an individual’s handwriting. This was not always easy. What a pleasure it was to find a hand that was legible! Other conventions made reading challenging. With regard to capitalization: in this time period many important nouns, though not all, were capitalized. How often did we three editors have disagreements as to whether an “s” was uppercase or not! On the other hand, there were words that today we would expect to be capitalized, like “French,” which often appeared with a lower case “f.” In addition, many writers did not capitalize the first word in a sentence. As for punctuation, because there generally were no commas between items in lists, we added them to avoid confusion on the part of the reader. Finally, given the heavy use of dashes, we often substituted a period at the end of a sentence.

Contractions & Abbreviations
Letters of this period are replete with contractions and abbreviations, and not just in drafts. The endings of contractions and abbreviations were written as small letters raised above the line in what is called superscript. In this example, the word Captain is abbreviated. The ending letter “n” is raised, and there is a period beneath it. Notice the month in the
dateline of a letter. We opted not to use superscript because we believed it
tended to interrupt rather than facilitate reading.

The ampersand (&) was routinely used in place of “and,” also “&c” for “and so forth.” In the past tense of verbs, the “e” was often omitted. Sometimes there is an apostrophe, but not always.

There was a fair amount of inconsistency in spelling: a word may have been spelled one way in one sentence and another way later on in the same letter. Sally Jay spelled “received” the way we do today; her husband spelled it “recieved”. There was no authority to which one could refer, thus no “correct” spelling. The letter “t” was often uncrossed (not helpful) and numbers were difficult to read. To boot, there was extensive use of squiggles and flourishes, especially in the signatures of men. I’ll bet you’ll never guess the reason for this. It was done so that the signatures could not easily be forged. Try duplicating John Hancock’s.

One of the more confusing writing conventions met with in reading and transcribing eighteenth century letters and diaries is the “long s” that looks like the present-day “f;” it was used in the middle of words though not at the end. The words are “Congress” and “possible.”

I’m sure you have at some time seen the sign “Ye Olde English Tea Shoppe” or something like it. The owner’s attempt to be quaint. But the “Ye” is not pronounced “Ye.” It is in fact the word “the;” the “y” in this case being the Old English letter thorn or “th.” It is used as such throughout this period.

Then there are old spellings and variants to deal with. English spellings of words were commonly used as in “endeavour” or neighbour.” Over time, the “u” is dropped. Words like “suspence” spelled with a “c” and judgement with an “e” are eventually Americanized. Other examples of words spelled differently include: “shew” for show, “chuse” for choose, “complete” spelled “compleat.”

Certain expressions may puzzle: “on that head;” “head” means “matter;” the word “hint” usually means “suggestion.” When there is a long quotation in the letter the quotation marks may appear in the margins—left and right. An abbreviation frequently used is viz. or vizt. with the “t” in superscript, derived from the Latin vide licet meaning “in other words” or “that is to say.” The use of catchwords is interesting. We may write “pto” in a letter, meaning “please turn over” directing the reader’s attention to the next page. In letters of the period, the last word on a page appears again at the top of the page on which the letter continues.

Familiar Words, Bygone Meanings
Misunderstanding the meaning of words is a common error of the modern researcher. In the eighteenth century the word “condescension” meant gracious acknowledgment as when Judith Sargent Murray speaks of Martha Washington’s condescension toward her. The word carries a negative connotation today. The word “interesting” was used as a synonym for “important.”

One instance where ascribing the modern meaning to a word can lead to misinterpretation is the use of the word “candid.” Before John Adams became interested in Abigail romantically, he found the Smith sisters “Not fond, not frank, not candid.” Candid at that time did not mean what it does today—”blunt.” As Adams wrote, “Candor is a Disposition to palliate faults and Mistakes, to put the best Construction upon Words and Actions, and to forgive Injuries.” Abigail and her sister were not candid in that they must have criticized some aspect of his behavior (which no doubt offended him, vain man that he was). In his view they should have been nonjudgmental, which was the meaning of the word “candid” at that time.

This information has been adapted from The Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay by Landa Freeman, Louise North and Janet Wedge, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Publishers, 2005), pages 3-5. The source for the maning of “candid” is Woody Holton, Abigail Adams (New York City: Free Press, 2009), pages 6-7. A Guide to Eighteenth-Century English Vocabulary by Jack Lynch can be found here.


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