05 June 2009

Filling in the Dash

Could we have a moratorium on “filling in the dash”? Someone thought up a good catch-phrase and now everyone’s using it and aren’t we getting a little tired of it already?

For the uninitiated, the dash refers to the space between birth and death dates in the conventional display such as you see on a cemetery headstone, e.g., John Smith 1789-1856. The dates of an ancestor’s birth and death. Filling in the dash is a simplified and buzzy way to say no-one wants to read a genealogy (aka family history, family tree) consisting of endless variations of the John Smith 1789-1856 ilk. Therefore, grassroots people, wake up and get serious about spending the extra time and effort to filling in your ancestors’ lives as much as the eras and sources allow.

The message is not new, of course. Genealogists have been exhorting each other for years to add biographical detail and all manner of contemporary community interest to our family histories. Clearly, filling in the dash fills the bill, taking on a life of its own among genealogical speakers, writers and educators. Since I have heard or read filling in the dash about ten-teen times this year alone, I was surprised to learn that it was new to many conference-goers. That probably means it will have a healthy shelf life. I can see the bumper stickers any day now.

One merely needs to google filling in the dash to see that it didn’t necessarily originate with genealogists. Although it was of passing interest, I decided not to undertake an extended study of its provenance. Suffice to say, perhaps, that personal memoir writers grabbed it back in 2003, sermons have been preached, the Journal of Memory and Language has an incomprehensible 1999 reference and “The Cemetary [sic] Kid” around about 1998 apparently used it somewhere in a New Times Los Angeles article—lengthy with no paragraph breaks—on the website Hollywood Underground. How’s that for superficial research?

But we do have our favourite clich├ęs, don’t we? Begats are still a popular negative. In problem-solving, brick wall has replaced dead end. There are more, which escape me for the moment. Feel free to remind me! With any luck at all, the worn-out family tree will be struck by lightning. Personally, I think genealogists and family historians—labels I scarcely differentiate—are creative enough to make their own unique catch-words.

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