International Genealogical Symbols

by Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Sooner or later, your research may take you over an ocean, and when it does, be prepared—you may receive information formatted differently, and it may contain unfamiliar symbols.

For instance, what do an “*”, an “o”, and a “+” remind you of? Use your imagination to see an egg, a ring, and a sword, and you will understand why some of these symbols represent birth, engagement, and death in various countries. And these symbols, which are commonplace in parts of Europe and South Africa, are becoming more frequent in America.

And they are an efficient way to illustrate relationships. Why write more than you need!

One of my first encounters with genealogical symbols was when I received the following report from a German researcher, who assisted in transcribing German records regarding my Miesse family. Johann Daniel “Daniel” Miesse (nee Müsse) was born in Elsoff (abbreviated as Els) in Wittgenstein, Germany, on 28 JAN 1743. The report read as follows:

1. Müsse, Daniel (Johann Daniel)

* Els, 28.01.1743

2. Müsse, Daniel (Johann Daniel)

* Els, -02.03.1694

+ Els, 28.01.1772

& Els, 21.02.1736

3. Gernand, Elisabeth (Anna Elisabeth)

* Els, -19.11.1708

+ Els, 03.12.1767

Notice that I used the common format of day/month/year to express Johann’s birthday, since the American month/day/year style is contrary to what is used in most parts of the world.

This is an important nuance in the second item of the report, regarding Daniel’s father (also known as Johann Daniel). He was born on 2 MAR 1694—not February 3, as many Americans would tend to record.

Keep this difference in mind if you take any international trips. Many an American has gotten reservations mixed up, not realizing that the month/day/year format is the exception, and not the rule, in most countries.

Daniel’s mother was Anna Elisabeth Gernand; she was recorded in item three of the report. The marriage union on 21 FEB 1736 is designated by an “&” in her husband's record. And now that you can read this document, note that she died on 3 DEC 1767 and that her husband died on 28 JAN 1772—by coincidence, their son’s birthday. The son ended up immigrating to America about this time and served in the American Revolution. One has to wonder if his father’s passing was an influence.

In this report, only a few genealogical symbols were used, but occasionally you will spot others.

For example, an engagement can be symbolized with two rings, or “oo”, and if rings are separated (“o o”), it indicates that the couple has separated. A divorce can be illustrated with a line or slash between the rings, either as “%”, “o/o”, or “o|o”.

Since symbols vary slightly from country to country, I constructed this chart to help identify the more common ones. Some of them are quite creative.

Genealogical Symbols

Status / Union




~ or ~~

Waves (water)

Born or Birth



Born out of wedlock/illegitimate


Egg not from union


[] or [ ]

Box or coffin

Buried (alternate)

#box or =B1

Box indicates a coffin

Comes after


greater than (e.g., birth, marriage)

Comes before


less than



Communion cup



Cross or dagger

Died--no further issue / line extinct


Line died out after person died



Cross with an egg

Died in battle


Crossed swords

Died in battle from wounds


Cross with crossed swords

Marital status--divorced

o/o, % or o|o

Rings divided

Marital status--married


Two rings

Marital status--married (alternate)


And or together

Marital status--married (South Africa, first or second marriage)

X or XX

And or together

Marital status--married, but separated

o o

Two rings separated

Marital status--unmarried, common law or illegitimate


Rings separated

Marital status--divorced (South Africa)


Divided union

Marital status--engaged



Marital status--first or second

I oo or II oo

First or second rings

(Posted 14 September 2008)

Previously published in RootsWeb Review: 9 July 2008, Vol. 11, No. 17. HCS readers can view other genealogical articles and releases in our extensive, permanent archives at the URL For more information about genealogical methodology, especially in researching Hellenic ancestry, see especially the main genealogy page or the section about Hellenic Historical and Genealogical Association at the URL

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