02 October 2012

Tuesday Tip - Revoir, S'il Vous Plaît, Review

The French word revoir means ’to see again; it is the origin of the English word review. I believe that for those of us who study our family history or are genealogists, the understanding of the root of this English word is critical.

I'm so fortunate to have had a number of ’aha! ’ moments, in locating original family documents. I've also come across plenty of biographies in books, articles in newspapers, etc. And every time that happens, it comes with this burst of elation, frenzied reading, excited data entry and a sense of being able to move my research just a little bit further along. I then catalog the item and move on.

Revoir. It's such a lovely sounding word. Its English derivation often, I believe, gets short shrift because of the subtle difference in its meaning. I believed that the word review meant to go over something a second time. It's the same thing as seeing it again, right? Or is it?

We can look, but not see. Anyone who's done more than cursory genealogical research knows this. So the process of reviewing our documentation is to re-see it, not just to look at it again, oui? I challenge you to take a document that you know may hold information that you have yet to glean, or even one you think you've gathered all you can from, and revoir it. Rather than reading the words, see it as a picture. Does something grab your eye? A surname, a date, a punctuation mark? (As an aside, I've used this technique on documents in languages I'm not familiar with; it's a tool to glean essential names, dates and keywords without translating the entire document.) 

Here's an example of a 'useless' document as described by the owner. By reviewing it, I was able to glean significant information, even though the old German/Dutch/French handwriting that it is in is nearly illegible. [Family letter from the collection of Nancy Wersel Rybolt (private). 2012]

I learned another great technique from a writer/editor friend (thank you Laura Matthews!): read the document backwards. Start at the end and read each sentence from the last to the first. Revoir. Found nothing new? At least you know you've tried every angle. Then, using your tracking system (you have one of those, right?) indicate that the document has been reviewed

Are there techniques you've used to review genealogical documents? Does knowing the derivation of the word help to re-frame how you'll review things?

I hope that this has helped a bit, and for now, au revoir. ;-)


  1. You are absolutely right. In any document, there are things we gloss over because we are seeing only what we expect to see, not what is actually there. We don't *see*. In my line of work, we are always encouraging students to "look again," and re-envision. In fact, "revise" is a big deal in teaching composition, and to me it means re-envision the whole, even if you have to take the draft apart and put it back together a different way. That is a great trick you mention, also for proofreading: Read everything backwards, and you can see the errors.

    I have an important death certificate that I look at every once in a while. The mother's name is typed over the instruction "mother's name," so the actual name is not legible. But I still try to stare at it again, and see what I can see. The answer is there somewhere!

    1. Have you tried scanning the back of the document and enhancing it using shimmying like Photoshop? Just a suggestion. And as usual, thank you so much for commenting!

  2. Laura:
    Usually, with documents such as the one you are showing here, my approach includes transcription. Often that is a very slow, letter by letter process. A magnifying glass comes in handy. It also includes looking for similar letters elsewhere in the text so that finally you can "construct" a word or part thereof. And when that job is done I start trying to understand what I have written down. And that involves reading it again and again until I grasp the meaning. Because many a time these documents include old fashioned words, some knowledge of etymology and the availability of old dictionaries is very useful. And then, in the end there is the reward. Or not yet :)

    1. Peter, thank you so much for your wise advice. This document was originally encased in cellophane and I had to conserve it before I could even think about transcribing it. I hope to have the time to tackle this in the not too distant future. :-)


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