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TWTS: When your ancestors are the descendants of your ancestors

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When you have a language podcast, you come across a lot of usages that make you think, “I would never say that.” A little research and a few contextual examples later, you might just change your mind.

This week, our listener Zeke Majeske got us thinking about using “ancestor” as a synonym for “descendent.” Zeke says, “I have always understood ‘ancestor’ to mean a relative who came before you and ‘descendent’ to mean a relative who comes after you. However, I frequently hear people use ‘ancestor’ to mean both.”

At first, we weren’t convinced we could use “ancestor” to mean “descendent.” Like Zeke, we’ve always thought of one coming before and the other coming after. But then, Zeke gave this example: “The ancestors of Thomas Jefferson still live in Virginia to this day.”

Would this use of “ancestor” jump out at you? We’re pretty sure we’d just keep on reading.

Historically, “ancestors” are the people who come before, from whom one is descended. A “descendent” is a person who descends from a particular ancestor.

It’s worth noting that both of these terms now have broader senses, where they can refer to predecessors, or those that come after that aren’t people. For example, a song could be a descendent of a particular cultural tradition.

The Oxford English Dictionary shows that by the first half of the 20th century, “ancestor” was being used to mean “descendant.” The OED gives this 2008 example from the journal Humanist: “Harper’s Magazine estimates that reparations of over a hundred trillion dollars are due to the ancestors of slaves.”

All of this isn’t to say that using these two terms interchangeably won’t result in confusion. Professor Anne Curzan says for ambiguity’s sake, it might be worth it to maintain a distinction.

“I think right now in formal contexts, it’s worth keeping them separate and having ‘ancestor’ refer to those that come before and ‘descendant’ for those who come after,” Curzan says. “But as the Oxford English Dictionary is capturing, this use of ancestor for descendant has been around for a few decades. I’m going to keep my eye on it.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.