Historic Records Center

Fairfax County, Virginia

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John T. Frey,
Clerk of the Court


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This glossary contains words frequently found in documents in the Historic Records Center and also helps to describe the various types of records found in our collection.


An entire overthrow of a suit, so it is ended.


A statement that either the person signed an instrument personally or that he witnessed the signing.
Administrator (-trix) A person appointed by the court to handle an intestate proceeding, that is, an estate without a will.
Administrator cum testamento annexo (administrator cta) This indicates there was a will. Either an executor was not named in the will and the court was appointing an administrator to handle it, or the executor died, refused to qualify, couldn’t qualify, moved from the area, etc. In many areas, this term has fallen into disuse and instead the administrator cta is referred to as “administrator with the will annexed” and abbreviated “w/w/a”
Administrator de bonis non (administrat or dbn) A person appointed by the court to handle the remainder of the estate. This situation may arise if the administrator died before the estate was settled, moved from the area, was judged incompetent to continue to administer, or various other causes.
Ads. Abbreviation for ad sectam, at the suit of. Often seen in early indexes to indicate the defendant.
Affidavit A written or printed statement of facts, confirmed by oath or affirmation of the party making it.
Affirm To make solemn and formal declaration that an affidavit is true, that the witness will tell the truth, etc. Substituted at times for an oath.
Alienate To convey, or transfer the title to property.
Answer The defendant’s written defense to a complaint (or a bill).
Apprentice One who is bound to another for a set period of time, and who usually exchanged labor and time for sustenance, room, training in some discipline, and very often a measure of education.
Appurtenance That which is belonging to something else, an appendage. Something annexed. This would include a right of way, an outhouse, a barn, garden, easement.
Ardent spirits Spirituous liquors.
Assign To transfer, make over or set over to another.
Assignment of dower The legal act by which a widow’s share in her husband’s assets is determined and set aside for her.
Assumpsit A common law form of action taken by a plaintiff against a defendant for nonperformance on a promise (written or oral) to undertake some act or repay a debt that the defendant had “assumed.”
Bequeath  To give personal property by will.
Bill  The first written pleading in an equity case; a complaint.
Bill of Sale Written evidence of sale, usually of personal property.
Bond The Court required two or more bondsmen (or “securities”) to guarantee the performance of the executor, administrator, or guardian. The bond is the written evidence of that obligation.
Bond (Judgment Suits) A written obligation in a judgment suit made between the locality and one of the parties or between the plaintiff and defendant in which the individual promises to pay the holder of the bond a certain amount in the form of cash or property should that person fail to fulfill his or her obligation. Examples of bonds include appeal bonds, attachment bonds, delivery bonds, forthcoming bonds, and replevin bonds.
c.t.a. See – administrator cum testamento annexo.
Certified copy Copy of a document or record, signed and certified as a true copy by an officer in whose custody the original is entrusted.
Chain carries or chain bearers Those people who carried the measuring chains used by surveyors.
Chancery Case A cause of equity where “justice is administered according to fairness as contrasted with strictly formulated rules of common law.” A judge, not a jury, decided such cases. In layman’s terms, a chancery case is one that could not be readily decided by existing written laws. Chancery cases often address the division of estates, the dissolution of business partnerships, the resolution of land disputes, and divorce.
Chattel An article of personal property (as distinguished by real property).
Citation A written order commanding the person to appear on a specific day and take some action specified in the order.
Civil Law Laws concerned with civil or private rights, as opposed to criminal law.
Committee Usually a group of people, some of whom may be related, delegated to a particular duty such as advisors or managers of an estate of an incompetent person.
Common Law Based on usage and precedents, common law is distinguished from statuary law which is created by legislation.
Common law action Action governed by common law, rather that statutory, equitable, or civil law.
Complainant One who files a complaint (the plaintiff).

The original or initial pleading which starts an action setting forth the facts of the claim.
Consideration The cause, motive, price or compelling influence which induces the parties to enter into a contract. In a deed, this is usually monetary; however it can be for “love and affection,” the exchange of property, or for other considerations.
Contest (will) To oppose, resist or dispute a will.
Contract  An agreement between two or more persons to do or not do a particular thing. Certain criteria must be met to make it valid.
Court of Record A court whose proceedings are required by law to be kept on permanent record.
Coverture  The status of a married woman under common law.
Curtesy  An estate by which a man was entitled, on death of his wife, of land and tenements which she owned. For the husband to be entitled to curtesy, they had to have had lawful issue born alive (even if the child subsequently died). It is an estate for the term of the husband’s natural life only.
Declaration A formal presentation of facts made by the plaintiff that explains and supports his or her action against the defendant. Also referred to as narratio (often abbreviated “narro” on docket), case, and debt.
Decree A declaration of the court announcing the court’s decision.
Demurrer A defendant’s allegation admitting to the facts in a complaint or bill, but claiming those facts are not sufficient for the plaintiff to proceed or for the defendant to answer.
Deposition The testimony of a witness taken in answer to either oral or written question.
Detinue An action to recover the personal chattels from someone who lawfully acquired possession but who then retained it without right to do so.
Devise To give real property in a will.
Discharge Can mean that a debt has been paid. Also can refer to a person appointed who has been relieved of duties.
Docket Lists the plaintiff’s and defendant’s names (style of suit) and the dates of court actions, including the filing of the bill, answer, and final decree. The docket is often used as a wrapper for the other documents in the case. In some cases, the docket is written on the back of the bill and then that document is wrapped around the others.
Dower The provision for allotting a portion of the land the law makes to a widow. Usually one-third, but can be one-half in some circumstances.
Dower Release A widow may choose to release her dower in land, either for a price, or as a gift.
Ejectment An action to restore possession of a piece of property to the person entitled to it.
Equity Justice administered according to fairness.
Escheat The reversion of property to the state when there is no individual entitled to inherit.
Estray Usually defined as a wandering animal whose owner is unknown.
et. al. Latin; et alii, and other persons.
et. ux. Latin; et uxor, and wife.
et. vir. Latin; and husband.
Execution A court order issued to a sheriff or other local official to a.) bring a defendant before the court to satisfy the debt and damages of a judgment against him or her or b.) seize and sell a defendant’s property to satisfy a judgment if the defendant was unable or refused to repay the debt owed the plaintiff. Examples of executions include attachments (Attach.), Capias ad satisfaciendum (Ca.sa.), fiera facias (Fifa), scire facias (Scifa), and capias.
Executor (-trix) A person named by the testator in a will to handle the estate.
Exhibit A document presented to the court to support the facts stated by the plaintiff in his or her declaration, narratio, etc. The most common exhibit is a document signed by the defendant promising to repay the amount owed to the plaintiff. Other examples of exhibits are vouchers, receipts, and correspondence.
Fee simple These words, when used alone, convey an absolute estate with no limitations or conditions. The owner is entitled to the entire property unconditionally.
Feme covert A married woman.
Feme sole A single woman, including those who have been married, but whose marriage has been dissolved by death or divorce.
Feoffment The grant of lands as a fee, commonly accompanied by livery of seizin.
Fiduciary A person or institution who manages money or property for another. Includes executor, administrator, trustee, and guardian.
Fieri facias (Fi. Fa.) A writ directing the sheriff to satisfy a judgment from the property of the debtor. Originally used for the seizure and sale of personal property, but eventually enlarged to include real property.
Folio A leaf of a page or manuscript.
Freehold An estate held for life or an estate in fee (which includes fee simple and fee tail).
Gift Deed (Deed of Gift) A deed in which the grantor (seller) makes a gift of real or personal property.
Grant In land, a grant refers to a particular type of transfer. The conveying of a tract of land from a colonial or state government to individuals.
Grant, bargain and sell Terms used to convey real estate.
Grantee The one who receives property.
Grantor One who transfers property.
Guardian A person lawfully invested with the charge of another person. Appointed to handle either the person, the estate (or both) of a minor, incompetent, or one otherwise incapacitated.
Guardian ad litem Guardian charged with a specific purpose.
Heir at law One who inherits property, whether real or personal, in case of intestacy (no will).
Heirs and assigns A standard clause normally indicating that there are no restrictions.
Holographic will A will written entirely in the testator’s handwriting.
Imprimis In the first place; first of all.
Indenture In real property transactions, a deed in which two or more persons enter into obligations with each other.
Indictment A formal written accusation originating with the prosecutor and issued by a grant jury against someone charged with a crime.
Infant A person under the age of legal majority.
Injunction A court order prohibiting a specified act or commanding someone to undo a wrong or injury.
Intestate A person who died without a will.
Inventory A detailed list of articles of property, and their estimated or actual value.
Judgment The official decision of a court in an action or suit.
Keeping the peace Avoiding a breach of the peace; dissuading or preventing others from breaking the peace.
Lease An agreement between the landlord (lessor) and the tenant (lessee).
Lease and Release A companion set of two documents in which the first (the deed of lease) established a lease for a nominal fund, and the second (the deed of release) dated at least a day later, gave the details of the actual price. This dual transaction was actually a sale.
Letters When the court approved the appointment of an executor, administrator or guardian, “letters” were issued by the court making that appointment.
Lien A claim, encumbrance, or charge on property for payment of debt.
Livery of seisin (or seizin) A common law ceremony transferring the land. It was a livery in deed when the parties went onto the land to perform the ceremony or a livery at law when the ceremony was not performed on the land but in sight of it.
Locus sigilli (L. S.) In the place of a seal.
Majority Full age; legal age at which a person is no longer a minor. The age at which, by law, a person is capable of being legally responsible for all of his or her acts.
Malfeasance The commission of some act which is positively unlawful.
Manumission The act of liberating a person from slavery or bondage.
Messuage Dwelling house with the adjacent buildings.
Metes and bounds A way of describing land using compass points, natural points (a tree, a river, etc.) and distances.
Mineral right An interest in minerals in land, with or without ownership of the surface of the land.
Moiety The half of anything, but sometimes used to reflect an equal part of three co-owners.
Mortgage and Chattel mortgage An interest in land (or personal property) created by a written instrument which provides security, usually for a debt. (A chattel mortgage was used as security specifically for personal property).
Next Friend A person acting for the benefit either of an infant (i.e., under the age of majority) or of another person unable to look after their own interest.
Orator The plaintiff in a chancery action.
Ordinary A tavern and restaurant, open to the general public and having no overnight accommodations; a place of eating and drinking, the rates of which were usually set by county court.
Orphan A person who has lost both (or sometimes one) of their parents. Usually used with a minor.
Partition The dividing of land (or personal property) by co-owners, usually resulting from an inherited parcel. This division may be voluntary or compulsory through a court action.
Petition A written request presented to a governing body.
Petitions and Summons Commonly found in 18th-century court records, petitions and summons were tri-folded together. The petition was a formal written application to the “law” side of the court requesting judicial action on a matter of debt. It included a recital of facts in the suit. The summons was an order directing the sheriff to summon a defendant to appear in court to answer the claims found in the petition.
Plat A map of a specific land area such as a town, section, subdivision or piece of land showing the location, boundaries, and usually, legal descriptions.
Power of Attorney An instrument in writing in which power is granted to another to perform certain specified acts.
Praecipe Written instructions, usually from the litigant, to the clerk of the court.
Private Entertainment An ordinary that also provided food, drink and facilities to private parties.
Private Examination Also known as separate examination. Questioning the wife, privately and out of the presence of her husband by one appointed by a court or by law authorized to take oaths, concerning whether she acted of her own free will in executing a deed or other legal instrument.
Processioning A survey and inspection of boundaries practiced in some colonies by the local authorities or those appointed by them.
Quitclaim deed A type of release which passes over any claim or interest that the grantor may have.
Quitrent Rent paid annually by a tenant to the government.
Real property Land, and generally whatever is erected or growing upon or affixed to land (such as trees).
Receipt Written acknowledgement of receiving something.
Release A written or oral statement discharging another from duty or payment.
Relict A widow or widower. The survivor of a married couple.
Replevin An action by which a person is entitled to repossess goods from someone who has wrongfully taken or detained those goods.
Respondent One who responds to a complaint or bill. Usually used in court of equity cases.
Reversion In deeds refers to any remnant left to the grantor.
Right of way deed The right of a person to pass over the land of another.
Scire facias (Sci. fa.) Most commonly, a writ directing the debtor to appear and show cause why a judgment against him should not be revived. Alternately, a writ to have a judgment executed.
Security That which is offered to guarantee the performance of a contract (written or oral); also, one who undertakes to fulfill or guarantee the obligation of another.
Show cause order An order issued by the court requiring the appearance of a person to show why some action should not be confirmed or take effect.
Subpoena An order to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony upon a certain matter. Usually contains the phrase “in a certain matter of controversy.”
Summons An order directing the sheriff to summon a defendant to appear in court at a certain date and place within a certain time to answer a suit begun against him or her.
Surety One who has contracted to be responsible for another person, especially one who assumes the responsibilities or debts of another person in case of default.
Tavern A place where drinkers are entertained, usually with minimal or no food and without overnight accommodations; rates of which were usually set by county court.
Tenement Commonly applied to houses and other buildings.
Testament Under early English law, a written instrument that disposed of personal property. Today the words “will” and “testament’ are equivalent, and the single writing may devise real property and bequeath personal property.
Testate A person who died leaving a will.
Trespass An unlawful interference with a person’s property or rights.
Trust Deed or Deed of Trust A type of mortgage in which land was deeded in trust to a trustee to secure the property.
Unalienable – inalienable Incapable of being aliened, that is, sold and transferred.
Venire facias A judicial writ, directed to the county sheriff, commanding him to summon twelve good and lawful men to serve as jurors. Venireman – a member of a panel of jurors.
Warranty Deed The grantor warrants a good, clear title.
Will An instrument which disposes of a person’s real and personal property after death.
Witness A person who was present and personally saw an action or event. A person who declares under oath or affirmation as to the actions or events personally seen.
Writ A written judicial order giving authority to a sheriff or local official to require a specified act to be carried out related to a judgment suit. Examples of writs include writ of ad quod damnum, writ of attachment, writ of ejectment, writ of error, writ of execution, writ of habeas corpus, writ of mandamus, and writ of supersedeas.
“X” The mark of “X” is generally used as the signature of a person who is illiterate, most commonly found in 18th and 19th century documents. The name of the person usually appears near the “X”.
Yield To give up, relinquish, or surrender.
Zoning The division of the city by legislative regulation into districts; also related to structural and architectural designs


This glossary was created with help from the following sources: Drake, Paul. What Did They Mean By That? A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New. Bowie: Heritage Books, 2003. Book; Library of Virginia. Research Notes Number 22: Chancery Cases. Richmond, June 2002. Document; Research Notes Number 29: Judgments. Richmond, June 2007. Document. Rose, Christine. Courthouse Research for Family Historians. San Jose: CR Publications, 2004. Book.

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