Semantic reversals 1: ancestor/descendant

For years, some of the ADS-Lers have been collecting examples of ancestor ‘descendant’. By 2004 Jon Lighter and Jesse Sheidlower had a dozen of so examples of this reversal from the earlier argument structure

EARLIER-KIN be ancestor of LATER-KIN


LATER-KIN be ancestor of EARLIER-KIN

Here I’ll note the examples from my files. In a later posting I’ll write about other semantic reversals.

1. Jon Lighter to ADS-L 9/19/04, with a rare biblical cite:

Exodus 12:12-14…So make today a permanent public holiday. For thousands of years to come your ancestors will take time off on National Flyby Festivals to retell the stories of what’s about to go down. (Rob Lacey, “The Word on the Street” [“The  Holy Bible,” partial translation:  “I fast-forward through the bits we usually ignore anyway”],  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 54.)

2. David Bergdahl to ADS-L 6/12/07, citing an article on tracing descendants of the Lost Colony in Virgina:

Fred Willard, director of the Lost Colony center, said some colonists may have migrated inland to what are now East Lake, Chocowinity and Gum Neck. Researchers plan to use cheek swabs taken from possible ancestors to test the paternal and maternal DNA lines. (link)

3. Bonnie Taylor-Blake to ADS-L, 6/24/07, from the front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution:


An unlikely, close-knit bond develops between ancestors of slaves and the ancestors of their slave masters. (link)

4. Barbara Need to ADS-L, 6/28/07, reporting a headline:

Study: House cat ancestor of Middle Eastern wildcat

(The text and a photo caption have things right. And David A. Daniel reported that the site quickly corrected ancestor to descendant.)

5. Jon Lighter to ADS-L, 12/6/07, with a dialogue with his 8-year-old granddaughter:

GD [referring to an environmental problem]: We’ll let our ancestors figure it out.

JL: You mean “descendants.”

GD: What’s “descendants”?

6. AMZ to ADS-L, 12/6/07, quoting Brians’s Common Errors:

When Albus Dumbledore said that Lord Voldemort was “the last remaining ancestor of Salazar Slytherin,” more than one person noted that he had made a serious verbal bumble; and in later printings of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets author J. K. Rowling corrected that to “last remaining descendant.” People surprisingly often confuse these two terms with each other. Your great-grandmother is your ancestor; you are her descendant.

I noted that it wasn’t in MWDEU or Garner’s Modern American Usage, but was unlikely to go away. I would now say (being mindful of Lighter’s granddaughter) that ancestor functions for some — maybe many — people to name lineal kin in general, probably as a result of the greater frequency of ancestor vs. descendant.

7. Simon Spero in e-mail, 1/1/08, with a news story (about Phileas Fogg) that had both correct and incorrect usage (and, in the print version, a caption with the reversed usage in it as well):

… on the 100th anniversary of his departure from Trafalgar Square his great-grandson fears that his ancestor may have told a fib or two.

Despite more than 20 years of research he has not found a shred of evidence his ancestor ever left Britain.

… His ancestors now believe the journey was more likely a forfeit after Bensley, a well known chancer and playboy, lost his fortune in a game of cards with the two men.

8. Tom Zurinskas to ADS-L, 10/2/08, in a dictionary:

… I bought an older “Webster’s Dictionary” (copyrights 1939 first to 1975 last) by Modern Promotions, NY.  It says “This dictionary is not published by the original publishers of Webster’s Dictionary, nor by their ancestors.”

9. Joel Berson to ADS-L, 11/19/08:

Harper’s magazine estimates the reparations of over $100 trillion are due to the ancestors of slaves. (“U.S. Apology for Slavery — Apparently Not Front Page News”, by Ananda S. Osel, in The Humanist, November/December 2008, page 5, col. 2)

Berson reported 377 Google hits for {“reparations” “ancestors of slaves”}, including one which refers to “surviving ancestors of slaves” and another to “ancestors of slave traders”.

10. Barbara Need to ADS-L, 1/12/11:

A report this morning on NPR claimed that ancestors of the pre-Colombian Amazonians are still around — and one of them was interviewed.

11. Jon Lighter to ADS-L, 4/17/11, reported:

Thompson’s birth is given as 1805 by one of you and 1808 by another? Can anyone clarify that? I appear to be his ancestor as my father owns an ivory miniature of one William Francis Thompson dated 1834. (source not given)

There are occasional sightings of reversal in the other direction:

1. Josh Jensen in e-mail, 1/3/08:

Last Sunday I heard a personal letter read (I didn’t see it) in which the writer (from Austin, TX, I think) said (I’m paraphrasing, but the key words are right): Before Dad died, we talked about who our descents [sic] are. Because of our name, we wondered if perhaps they were Jewish.

2. Bonnie Taylor-Blake to ADS-L, 9/4/08, quoting from John McCain’s speech to the Republican National Convention:

We believe everyone has something to contribute and deserves the opportunity to reach their God-given potential from the boy whose descendents arrived on the Mayflower to the Latina daughter of migrant workers. We’re all God’s children and we’re all Americans. (link)

Note that some of these reversals might be inadvertent errors, rather than shifts in argument structure — akin to someone who, on meeting someone famous they admire, say, “You’re my greatest fan!”

Further reversals to come.

3 Responses to “Semantic reversals 1: ancestor/descendant”

  1. mph Says:

    My local paper, the Johnstown (Pa.) Tribune-Democrat, misused “ancestor” in a front-page headline a few months ago:

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Jesse Sheidlower now writes that he was unable to stop collecting such examples of ancestor, so he assembled them into an OED draft entry — with examples from 1920, 1962, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2007, and 2008.

  3. Semantic reversals 2: benefactor/beneficiary « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] is #2 in a series; I posted the first, on ancestor / descendant reversal, a year ago. In that case, ancestor has picked up the meaning […]

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