Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The way names are spelled

Table Alphabeticall
It always amuses me when someone insists that their family name is spelled a certain way. I often hear how my name is spelled with an "e" instead of an "o" or some other variation. A little bit of history goes a long way in curing genealogists of this problem, but the secondary problem is that some researchers never learn the history and keep believing the myth.

Although the concept of a dictionary goes back into antiquity, the idea that words should be spelled a certain way evolved only slowly. The earliest English language dictionaries were essentially word lists, sometimes with other language equivalents. The earliest dictionary is usually attributed to John of Galand (Johannes de Garlandia). His Dictionarius was published in about 1200. But the first dictionary to use alphabetical order wasn't published until 400 years later in 1604. It was the
Table Alphabeticall (shown above) by Robert Cawdrey.

I selected this example to illustrate the fact that focusing on the "correct" spelling of any word, including the names of our ancestors, ignores the historical reality: English and all other languages were and are in state of constant flux. If you would like to see an interesting analysis of this issue as reflected in the 1790 U.S. Census records, see the following:
American Council of Learned Societies. Surnames in the United States Census of 1790: An Analysis of National Origins of the Population. Baltimore, MD: Clearfield Co, 1990.
See also:
Matheson, Robert E. Special Report on Surnames in Ireland: [Together with] Varieties and Synonymes of Surnames and Christian Names in Ireland. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1988.
 See Wikipedia: Surname and Wikipedia: Family name.

A good example of the process of the adoption of specific surnames comes from Denmark. Here is a summary of the process from Wikipedia:
The first naming act in Denmark was issued in 1526 and made heritable names compulsory for nobility. Other higher class people took heritable surnames during the following centuries, clergy often Latinized names (e.g. Pontoppidan made from Broby) and artisans often Germanized names. Naming acts applying to all citizens were issued 1771 (for the Duchy of Schleswig only) and in 1828. The rural population only reluctantly gave up the traditional primary patronyms. Several naming acts replaced the first; in 1856, 1904, 1961, 1981, 2005. The result of the first act was that most people took a patronymic surname as their heritable family name, with the overwhelming dominance of a few surnames as a consequence. Later acts have attempted to motivate people to change to surnames that would allow safer identification of individuals.
Slavish insistence on a particular spelling of any name from the historical past (or even the present) is one of the most persistent obstacles to genealogical research. I have instances in my own family where my ancestor's surname was spelled one way before immigration. another way after immigration, changed back to the original spelling by one or more of the immigrant's descendants and then changed back to the changed form by the next generation.

Many times, in examining old documents, you will find the same person's name spelled in more than one or two different ways. One of the most famous examples of these variations is the name of William Shakespeare. Here is a quote from Wikipedia: Spelling of Shakespeare's name as an example:
The spelling of William Shakespeare's name has varied over time. It was not consistently spelled any single way during his lifetime, in manuscript or in printed form. After his death the name was spelled variously by editors of his work and the spelling was not fixed until well into the 20th century.
All I can say further is you need a very liberal attitude when looking for people by name.


  1. Fascinating James - I will remember this when people tell me my name should be O'connor

  2. James, I run a genealogy group on Facebook and have been teaching genealogy online for years. You don't know how many times I've come up against this same argument. It seems difficult for some to grasp the concept that people weren't all that hung up on spelling accuracy or that rules have changed over the centuries. Many of us with Portuguese roots have peasant ancestors. Many were illiterate and most likely did not know how to spell their own names, nor did they have much reason to know it. When you live in a modern society where you start signing your name on your school assignments as a child and do it all the time as an adult, it's hard to wrap your mind around a time when it wasn't necessary.

    The more the person gets used to idea of spelling variations the further they will go with their research.

  3. One of my lines was spelled Sip by Poles, Schipp by Germans, and US officials and then Szyp and Szypinski by a priest recording baptisms because he "knew" what the proper spelling should be. It's a challenge.

  4. It's worth pointing out that some of those spelling changes are more language changes. Letters are pronounced differently in different languages and different languages have diffenet letters.

    An example of the former is what Mary Foxworthy cites above. Szyp in Polish is exactly the same as Schipp in German. Or Holc in Polish is the same as Holz in German and Holtz in English.

    An example of the latter is the absence of "h" from Russian. Hence Herman becomes German and Kohen becomes Kogan

  5. It is not just surname or family names that can be a problem. If the census enumerater did not know of the place they would record what they heard. The local way of saying a place name could lead to some strange place names being recorded and if there were several possibilities you can be looking for someone in the wrong place.