My wife and I were watching Tuesday night’s episode of Genealogy Roadshow last night, and in general I enjoyed it. I’m especially pleased with how the series is presenting the viewer with tips on how to conduct genealogy research.
However, there was one instance where I shouted back at the television screen in complete frustration.
One of the individuals at the roadshow presented her question. She wanted to know if she was related to George Washington. One of the professional genealogist hosts told her that George Washington had no children, so she couldn’t be related to him. What?!
Just minutes earlier one of the hosts had told someone they were related to Emily Dickinson. Not descended from her, but sixth cousin five times removed, if I recall correctly. How can a professional genealogist confuse the phrases ‘related to’ and ‘descended from’ and still call themselves a professional genealogist?
Thinking about it, I realized that all individuals submit their queries months in advance, to give the show’s research team time to conduct the research. The individual probably asked if George Washington was her ancestor, and only changed it to ‘related to’ during the taping. The Genealogist Host was just presenting the 'research' done on the original question. (In scare quotes because they may have conducted none since they knew the answer without research.) However, the host, in my mind, should have taken the time to clarify the question for the viewer. “The question you submitted to us a few months ago was whether you were descended from Washington. Since Washington had no children of his own, this isn’t possible. You could be descended from one of Washington’s six siblings, or a cousin, and still be related to him.”
By not clarifying this for the viewer, the show encouraged the misuse of the terminology. It’s not uncommon to hear people mix up ‘relative’ and ‘descendant.’ Back in 2010 People Magazine reported that the actor, Robert Pattinson, was descended from Dracula, instead of a distant cousin. (They've corrected the main article, but you can still see the original error in the photo caption.) A professional genealogist should not encourage this confusion, though.