07 April 2010

UK: Genealogists are 'creepy, boring'

Remember a few weeks ago when the New York Times television reviewer made disparaging remarks about genealogy and genealogists?

Today, the UK's Times Online writer and author Sathnam Sanghera says, "I can’t think of a single revelation produced by a single genealogist that hasn’t made me think: meh.

[As a non-Brit, I'm assuming "meh" is either the sound a baby goat makes (having seen them up close and personal with many making "meh" noises as they nibble at your clothing) or an uninspired remark indicating "so what?" Yesterday at the supermarket cheese counter, looking for sheep feta (the closest we get to real Bulgarian panir here in Tel Aviv), I forgot the word for sheep and said "b-a-a-a." A helpful woman on line informed me that Israeli sheep say "meh" not "b-a-a-a." In any case, I pointed to the correct cheese! But I digress.]

A little later in the story, Sanghera pronounces:

Show me a genealogist and I’ll show you someone who is basically obsessed with proving that they come from royal, aristocratic or celebrity lineage. Creepy and boring.

His other gems included:

And before anyone points out the hypocrisy of a memoirist [see his website above]slagging off genealogy, life writing and genealogy are completely different. One being the equivalent of an interest in music, the other the equivalent of an interest in hi-fi equipment.

Though perhaps a better way of putting it is that genealogy is the academic equivalent of endlessly googling yourself. Aficionados like to say their pastime is a good way of learning about history, but it strikes me as a highly solipsistic and narcissistic way of doing so.

Don't know what "solipsistic" means? Solipsism, a philosophical term, means (1) The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified or (2) The theory or view that the self is the only reality.

[Tracing the Tribe prefers the opposite view. Each of us are made up of pieces of all our ancestors, recombined genetically, throughout time. Our ancestors and their lives are who we are today. As genealogists, we want to know who our ancestors are, regardless of where they came from, how they lived and in what ways their experiences and history have contributed to who we are today. But I digress again.]

Sanghera's article came out of a point made by Ricky Gervais in a Times magazine interview over the weekend:

Namely: “I don't see the point really.” In reference to Who Do You Think You Are?, the genealogy TV show, he continued: “Who cares who the **** you are? I love it when they cry when they find out their great-great-grandmother was a prostitute. Really? It’s all come flooding back now, hasn’t it? Oh, the terrible memories of 150 years ago.”

Sanghera said this was his reaction more or less when reading about the Arts and Humanities Research Council funding a major new research project to create the largest database of the UK’s family surnames which will apparently be “of enormous interest to home genealogists and family historians.”

Although Sanghera states that genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies on the planet, he just doesn't get it. His own research on his Punjabi-origin family indicates that the males were all farmers.

You may want to read his opinion on the Ancestry announcement that Madonna and Ellen DeGeneres are distant cousins, and his linking of Rolling Stones' Keith Richards with the librarian profession.

Read the complete story at the link above. There were only two comments there when I checked it, and readers may wish to add their own opinions.

Chris Dunham - The Genealogue - provided his own take on Sanghera here.

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak wrote more about Ricky Gervais' comments in her latest Huffington Post piece, and provided a link to Tracing the Tribe's recent "Doing the Happy Dance" post.


  1. Thanks for sharing this Schelly. I left a comment on TimeOnline. We'll see if it makes it past the moderator.

  2. Just saw your comment at the UK story, so it definitely made it past their moderator! Let's hope lots of genealogy people add their comments.


  3. Good post Schelly and let's hope it gets some folks to voice the genealogist's view (a much more accurate one) of why family history is important.

    And "meh" seems to be the Web 2.0 version of "feh" which I grew up saying all the time back home in New York.

  4. Anonymous11:46 PM

    well the writer sounds jealous to me...maybe they came from a shamefully embarrassing family line...lol

  5. Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak has expounded on Ricky Gervais comments noted in this post in her most recent Huffington Post article. Read it here: http://huff.to/cL1dOd


  6. Sheep say "meh." See First Samuel,15,14.

  7. Anonymous2:47 AM

    To pharaphrase the headline, every newspaper has stories - doesn't mean they are worth writing! Maybe the Times had run out of interesting things to report.

    I'm a Brit and no idea what 'Meh' means either but am guessing its probably a fair description of how I would feel if I bothered to read the article.

  8. Anonymous3:11 AM

    Family tree research can open a "Pandora's Box" of secrets that may cause rifts, research says


  9. Hola Schelly, I see no difference between finding out your ancestors were all from the same place and the same profession, or, like us, from many different countries, and anyone who is shocked at learning something unsavoury, probably needed to learn it to stop being holier-than-thou.... Personally I am interested in knowing what kind of people my ancestors were because they all had some influence on me through the way they brought up their children who brought up my grandparents and parents who taught me their values and so on. What events shaped their personalities and made them react the way they did. Before Internet being a genealogist meant doing cemetery visits, spending hours in archives and other highly time-consuming work and despite that, a cousin of mine has put together a fairly complete family tree back to 1249 with over 770 members - none of them royalty.
    It is fun and one gets to meet lots of great people like yourself. To each his own and I am sure that the author has interested that I would not wish to spend any time on, but would never belittle....

  10. Katherine Borges7:52 AM

    Hi Schelly, Here's another one for you -
    I think these non-genealogists have a lot of hutzpah to pass judgement on us when they don't even know what they're talking about! How can they write these op-ed pieces when they don't understand the subject?

  11. I'm the kind of person who had more fun joining the International Society of Black Sheep Genealogists than the day I joined the Mayflower Society. It takes all kinds of people to make a family tree, and so I'll add a "baaah" to your "meh"