The Grammarphobia Blog

When a family daughters out

Q: In his novel Money for Nothing, Donald E. Westlake has a character say a family “daughtered out.” The meaning is clear, the family name went extinct for lack of male heirs. Did Westlake invent this use of “daughter”?

A: The phrasal verb “daughter out” is familiar to genealogy buffs. A family name is said to “daughter out” when there are no sons to pass it on. (The assumption, of course, is that daughters always take their husbands’ names.)

The expression appeared in writing in the 1940s, but it can’t be found in the usual standard, slang, or etymological dictionaries. And unfortunately, there’s no mention of it in the Dictionary of American Regional English, so we can’t say where it might have originated.

However, “daughter out” is included in the collaborative Wiktionary, which defines it this way: “(of a surname or of heritable property in a patrilineal naming or inheritance system) To expire due to having only females surviving the death of the last male in a line.”

Wiktionary also lists the principal parts of the verb: “third-person singular simple present daughters out, present participle daughtering out, simple past and past participle daughtered out.”

Westlake used “daughtered out” twice in the same scene of his 2003 novel Money for Nothing.

The characters Josh and Robbie are in a taxi, and the driver tells them that the woman they’re going to see, Mrs. Rheingold, “was one of the Caissens, old-time family around here, you know. Early settlers. Daughtered out.”

She got married, the cabbie says, “just around the time the last of her aunts expired, leaving her the absolute last Caissen, and not even a Caissen anymore but a Rheingold.”

“Daughtered out,” Robbie then says, and Josh suspects that Robbie repeated it “because he’d just now figured out what it meant.”

Westlake apparently liked the expression, because he’d used it decades earlier.

In his novel Brothers Keepers (1975), two monks are speaking and one says, “The Van deWitts daughtered out during the Civil War.” He later explains that the “line eventually produced no sons … and therefore the name ceased to exist.”

As we said above, the expression has been in use since the 1940s, if not before. The earliest example we’ve found is from a nonfiction book about a historic New Hampshire mill:

“The name of Goffe ‘daughtered out’ one hundred years ago, but the descendants persisted on the location just the same.” (John Goffe’s Mill, 1948, by George Woodbury.)

The phrase also cropped up in 1957 in a short item in Reader’s Digest: “New England expression: ‘The family name daughtered out’ (Paul Flowers in Memphis Commercial Appeal).”

A letter to the editor of the journal American Speech (February 1961) cites the use of the expression in The Devil in Bucks County, a 1959 novel by Edmund Schiddel:

“There used to be lots of Coatesworths here in the early days, and they did own land up your way. But they were daughtered out, long ago.”

An article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (October 1967) uses the term in reference to a New Hampshire family named Merrow: “Meanwhile Deacon Daniel’s progeny proliferated Merrows well into the twentieth century before they almost ‘daughtered out.’ ”

It’s possible that “daughter out” was a New England expression. We’ve seen much later examples in which it’s said to have originated in Massachusetts, Maine, or Vermont. But we’ve also seen suggestions that it comes from Canada or the South.

One late 20th-century example connects the term to a particular genealogist: “The Joyce family surname died out in this line of the Joyce family—‘daughtered out’ as the late great genealogist, Maclean W. McLean used to say” (from the Mayflower Quarterly, 1997).

McLean did use the term, but he apparently didn’t coin it. The earliest uses by him that we’ve been able to find are from a 1972 issue of the American Genealogist, in which he uses the term twice in separate articles: “this Whelden family had not ‘daughtered out’ ” … “the [Harper] family ‘daughtered out.’ ”

These days, “daughtered out” is commonly used on genealogical websites and can often be found in other kinds of writing as well. It’s not to be confused with the title of a reality-TV program, OutDaughtered, which is about a young couple with six daughters (five of them quintuplets).

The couple, Danielle and Adam Busby, are certainly overwhelmed by daughters, but there’s no suggestion that the Busby name will be “daughtered out.” Adam could have other male relations named Busby—or a future son-in-law could adopt the Busby name!

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.