the curious history of the word ‘pedigree’

The word pedigree appeared in the early 15th century in the Latin form pedicru and in English forms such as pe-de-grew and pedegru, from Anglo-Norman French pé de grue and variants (pied de grue in Modern French), meaning literally foot of crane.

The Anglo-Norman French word is first recorded during the second Michaelmas term (i.e. during the second session, beginning soon after Michaelmas, of the High Court of Justice in England) of Edward II’s reign (reigned 1307-27). Apparently, three sisters, Julia, Lucy and Alice, held property as parceners (i.e. they held an equal share of this property) and the descendants of one, or perhaps two, of these sisters were bringing an action against a person who was in possession of the share of the third sister.

The text is:

Jon E. et Luce porterent bref vers Willem et fesoynt un title et counterent par la pee de gru sicut patet :
Iuliana                                             Thomas           filius suus
Lucia                      sorores              Lucia               Agnes filia
Alicia                                                Iohannes         petit
John E. and Lucy submitted a writ against William and established a claim, [which] they accounted for by means of the genealogical table, as follows.

A pedigree was originally a genealogical stemma or table, a genealogy drawn up or exhibited in some tabular form. According to Charles Sweet in The Athenæum: A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Music, and the Drama of 30th March 1895, in these genealogical charts, a conventional mark consisting of three curved lines was used to indicate descent and bore a distinct resemblance to the claws of a bird. But, although this explanation is now generally accepted, no example of the use of such a symbol in medieval genealogies has been found.

As explained by Anglo-Norman Words, the same word or word group is not found in Continental French until the 19th century, when pedigree was borrowed directly from English to denote the record of descent of an animal (so that French pedigree is both an Anglicism and a ‘boomerang word’). Therefore, it appears that pedigree is an insular formation, originating in Anglo-Norman and appearing a century later in English. It seems to have quickly lost its original association with the claw-like symbol, only to be subjected to various forms of (mis)understanding of its original significance and to reinterpretation of its spelling.

For example, in some 15th– and 16th-century English sources, there are forms such as pedegre, peedegree and pe-degre—probably by association with degree.

In some other sources from the same period, there are spellings such as petygrewe and petigree, with the first two syllables suggesting an understanding of the first element of the word as an instance of French petit, small (rendered in English as petty – cf. petty cash and petty jury). As for the second half, gree, it is attested as a synonym of degree, in particular, from the 14th century, in the sense of a ‘step’ in direct line of descent (both gree and degree are ultimately from Latin gradus). In the following passage from A Treatise conteining a plaine and perfect description of Ireland, with an Introduction to the better vnderstanding of the histories apperteining to that Iland (from Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland – 1587 edition), the Irish translator and historian Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618) expressed this interpretation in the spelling:

As for Gerrot it differeth flat from Girald: yet there be some in Ireland, that name and write themselues Gerrots, notwithstanding they be Giraldins, whereof diuerse gentlemen are in Meeth. But there is a sept of the Gerrots in Ireland, and they séeme forsooth by threatning kindnesse and kindred of the true Giraldins, to fetch their petit degrees from their ancestors, but they are so néere of bloud one to the other, that two bushels of beanes would scantlie count their degrées.

Similarly, in The seconde parte of the booke of Christian exercise, appertayning to resolution. Or a Christian directorie, guiding all men to their saluation (1590), the English Catholic priest Robert Parsons (1546-1610) wrote, about “the lyne and stocke of Iesus”:

For hys lyne and stocke, there was neuer man denied or doubted, but that Iesus was directly of the Trybe of Iuda, and descended liniallie by hys Mother of the peculiar house of Dauid, (according as it was fore-tolde that the Messias should doe;) which is proued most cleerely by the two Genealogies and petidegrees, sette downe by S. Matthew and S. Luke, of the blessed Virgins whole discent, from Dauid to Ioseph, that was of the same Trybe and kindred wyth her.

The English surname Pettigrew has the same origin as pedigree. (Kranenfuss, a German name, literally means crane’s foot as well.) Similarly, the English surname Pettifer is from French pied de feriron foot.

French has kept pied de grue in the phrase faire le pied de grue, meaning to stand about waitingto cool (or kickone’s heels. The phrase refers to the crane standing on one foot when resting. For the same reason, grue (a feminine noun) was one of the names applied to prostitutes.

Grue is also one of the bird names applied to women regarded as lacking intelligence, along with other feminine words: dinde (turkey), oie (goose) and bécasse (woodcock).

More generally, avoir une cervelle d’oiseau, literally to have a bird’s brain, obviously corresponds to English to be birdbrained.

And donner à quelqu’un des noms d’oiseaux, literally to give somebody birds’ names, means to call somebody names.

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