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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Although I might never find the right answers, I might one day become capable of asking the right questions.
Sir William Addison
History isn't something that is dead and done with; it is something that is alive and all around us...in things we see before our eyes.
A. L. Rowse
Nothing is seen when the viewer does not know what he is looking at.
The names of people and places were originally introduced as aids to identification and they are now our abstract heirlooms. Family historians appreciate the value of heirlooms in preserving memories of the past. They can tell us much about the history of our ancestors, their kin, how they made their way through life, and the places in which they lived.
The study and history of proper names is called onomastics. Onomastics will provide new understanding of the historical development of the world around us, and of the people who came before our time.
It is important to be reminded of the inter-relationship of the names of places and people. The family historian will find references to the inter-connected naming of many other things as diverse as buildings, festivals and everyday things, all of which have some bearing on family history. I have devised a schematic representation of how names have been derived, shown below, although it is appreciated that it is an over-simplification of millennia of change.The chart indicates the major methods of name formation by arrows from the formative element to the type of name. Thus, for example, royalty has given us first names, many of which have in turn given us place names, which have sometimes formed surnames, pub names, street names and so forth.
Chart: Interrelationships of Naming Practices
Introduction to Orthography
A cautionary note on spelling (orthography) is appropriate from the very beginning in any discussion of names. Before 1900 there was no standardized spelling for the English language, for example until 1880 in England; most people did not know how to spell their names and did not care. Spelling was not important as long as personal and place names were pronounced roughly the same as they expected them to be. Add to this the much wider usage of broad regional accents and thick dialect, hearing failure and perhaps sloppy work habits and one can explain why genealogists ignore spelling variations at their peril! Author John Titford is correct in affirming that the greatest single difference between professional and amateur family historians is that the professional takes a more flexible approach to the form and spelling of a surname. When studying one’s own family it is wise, therefore, to stand back and take a more reasoned, rather than emotional, look at your surname.
The author is frequently encountered muttering to herself whilst reading old records. Contrary to her offspring’s misgivings on the subject she is not yet off her proverbial rocker. She is merely sounding out the words she sees; if they come out something like what she is searching for then she writes the entry down. It is wiser to spread the net widely than to ignore variations and have to come back later to repeat the work, after developing more humility about the family ‘always having spelled it this way!’
It is normal to see a variation in spellings of names. One of the reasons is the change in pronunciation, particularly of vowels, that has occurred in the English language over time. For example in the Great Vowel Shift, which changed English Pronunciation around 1500, ‘E’ was replaced by ‘A’, so that names like Merkwick became Markwick, and Mechewyk (pronounced ‘Megic’) became Madgwick (pronounced ‘Magic’) (Brown).
Other variations come about through phonetic spelling. When a variation persists for at least a couple of generations it is considered to be a true variant (Palgrave 1992). There are many places and surnames for which at least two acceptable spellings have developed and appropriate gazetteers and surname dictionaries will point these out. The family historian needs to watch for problems whenever names were spoken for someone to write down, and to be alert to misreading of the written word in a transcript, or by the researcher himself.
When the population was largely illiterate few people were in a position to spell their own names, consequently record keepers such as parish incumbents, lawyers and registrars recorded their own interpretation of what they heard. There could be no standard English spelling until English dictionaries were in wide circulation, the first major one being published by Samuel Johnson in 1755. There were no standard listings of surnames, with the exception of those occurring in the Bible. Up until about 1800 it is fairly common to find several different versions of a name in one document.
The family historian needs to learn to read phonetically, and also to learn to pronounce words in other dialects and then imagine how they would then be spelled. Pauline Litton (Pitfalls and Possibilities in Family History Research. Family Tree Magazine Vol 14 #11, page 25) quotes the lovely example of Castleford, which is said (and could be spelled) in southern England as Carstleford, but in Yorkshire it would be Casselfud. Charles Pass becomes Parss and with a sliding “S” can mutate into Sparse. Another tactic is to ask someone with that surname for a list of spellings that they get on their junk mail!
C.W. Bardsley observed that once the original derivation of a family surname had been forgotten people tended to pronounce the name in a way that conveyed a meaning. Unfortunately this so often changed the original intent, but was written down in the new form in later documents and constantly confuses the researcher. Examples include substitution of Bacchus for Backhouse, Forty for de la Fortheye, Goodyear for Goodier, Greedy for Gredhay, and Physick for Fishwick.
Family historians need to consult the instructions and introductory pages for indexes that they use in order to discover what type of spelling and groupings have been used. How many people using Boyd’s Marriage Index, for example, realize that it uses mostly a standard phonetic spelling where Ph is rendered as F, and Kn as N, but that the lastsection completed (the 3rd Series) is mixed regular and phonetic?
Normal Spelling Variation
Types of Variations
This section summarizes the main spelling variations that cause problems in genealogy. Such a categorization is offered merely to point out commonalties; huge numbers of gradations and combinations will be encountered. Many of the examples given here actually show more than one variation. It is suggested that these possibilities be carefully considered for your own ancestral surnames.
| Single of double
| Addition of an 'S'
| Addition of an 'E'
| Addition of both 'E' and 'S'
| Loss of ending
| Sloppy ending
| Interchangeable Consonants|
Where the substitution occurs in the first letter this will cause indexing problems
|C and K||Carney|| Kerney
| C and S
|D and T||Maddocks||Mattocks|| |
| F and Ph
||Febe, Feby, Fibbiy|| |
||Pheabey, Phebhey, Phoebe|| |
| J, G and D
| V and FF
| B, P and R
| G and (C) K
| The first letter will cause indexing problems|
|| Yewdon Youdan|
| Many involve addition or subtraction of an H, often with a vowel change as well|
|| Uilliam (Irish Gaelic, short form Liam)|
|Most Arlott's have understandably dropped an H, but the orgin of the surname is not what might be supposed, as during the period of surname formation prior to the 15th century it meant a vagabone or intinerant entertainer.|
|Single or Double Middle Letters|
| Simmilar Sounding Letter Groups|
| De La Rue
| To tweenes
|| Two twins
|Sometimes the person is referred to by both spellings:|
|Frinstead, Kent BT's||8 Jan 1860||Burial|| |
|Henry SAGE or SEDGE of Frinsted, age 62 years|
|Dropping and Adding an Initial Consonant|
| The latter two are translations from Welsh to English|
| Sliding S |
This is liable to happen when a given name ending with an S precedes a surname starting with a vowel or certain consonants, as in:
|James Anderson||-->||James Sanderson|
|Thomas Youill||-->||Thomas Sewell|
|Phyllis Tiller||-->||Phyllie Stiller|
|Alice Enderby||-->||Alice Senderby|
|Other mixed endings and beginnings can be found, often hilarious, as in the case of Kent in the mid-1800's where I was puzzled to find the unusual name Barney Beheadings. Later on this man was referred to, probably correctly, as Barnaby Eddings.|
See British Naming Conventions for more information.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.
- This page was last modified on 17 June 2014, at 16:52.
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