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Surname Spellings in Genealogy

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By : Rosamunde Bott    99 or more times read
Submitted 0000-00-00 00:00:00
When you are tracing ancestors, one of the most common problems you will come across is the variation in surname spellings.

Here are some of the reasons why this happens.

1. Until the 19th century there were no standardized spellings for surnames. Around 90% of the population could not read or write, so spelling was not important.

2. Most documents were written by someone in authority, and when writing someone's name, he could only go by what was given to him by speech. So, when one of my Reid ancestors got married, he would give his name to the presiding priest (the Reids were Catholics), who would write it down as he heard it. Therefore, this line of my family can be found under REID, REED or READ - and possibly even REDE, all of which sound exactly the same.

3. Some foreign immigrants would anglicize their names because they wanted to fit in with the local community or because of discrimination. The German name, ALBRECHT could therefore become ALLBRIGHT, and the Jewish name COHEN could become KAHN.

4. Strong accents could result in surnames being mis-heard when given to someone from a different area. If your ancestors have moved from place to place, this could often change the spelling of their surname drastically.

5. Where surnames have been indexed in more recent times, the indexers have had to decipher some difficult handwriting, and very often names have therefore been mis-spelt.

It is very important, therefore, that you look at all variations of a surname when you are doing your searches. NEVER assume that someone is not your ancestor because the spelling is not correct!

With some surnames, this can cause time-consuming searches. I have experience of this with my own family tree. My maternal grandfather's birth name (he was adopted) was MCEWEN. The variations on this surname appear to be endless. I have found the following possibilities so far, and there are many more: MCKOWAN, MCEWEN, MCEWAN, MAGOWEN, MCKEON, MCKEOWN, MCKEWEN, MCKEWAN, MCCUNE and so on.

Most index search engines will do a phonetic search, which does help to a large extent. However, these do not always cover every possibility, and it may sometimes be necessary to use your imagination and try a few different spellings in the search box.

Sometimes surnames can evolve into something surprisingly different from their original spelling. I once discovered that the Northamptonshire family surname of PETTIFER had evolved from the 17th century name of PECKOVER.

It is a good idea to say the name out loud using the dialect of the region they lived in, or came from, and seeing how the vowel sounds flatten or widen. Don't forget that consonants can also sound different with a heavy accent, and particularly if a person had a cold at the time!

Common mis-spellings also need to be taken into consideration. For example, the "S" at the end of some names, such as SIMMONS, could be dropped, or a double letter shortened to one. Modern typing errors often involve a key that is next to the correct on, so NUNN could become MUNN.

Some of the letters used in old handwriting can look very different to the same letters today, and even experienced indexers can make mistakes when transcribing these. For example, the letter "t" can look like a "c", and "o" can look like "a". On one of the census indexes I found that my BOTT ancestors had been indexed as BATT.

Genealogy is never straight-forward! But this is what makes it such an absorbing hobby, and when you have used some imaginative detective work to work out your ancestors' different surname spellings you will feel all the more rewarded by your efforts when you eventually find your missing person!
Author Resource:- Ros is a professional genealogist and writer, and offers free help and advice and an ancestry tracing service at her website, Tracing Your Ancestors In The UK.
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