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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 ($).



Researchers in North America and other immigration points frequently have difficulties tracking their ancestor across the ocean. Immigration officers were not chosen for their knowledge of foreign languages and alphabets, or even tolerance of ethnic immigrants. All kinds of things happened to names as they entered the new country, either by choice of the emigrant, or by deliberation of the clerk. Researchers should consider particularly:

  • ŸDirect translations from the immigrant’s mother tongue for example:
  • ŸAngwyn to White
  • ŸDu Bois to Wood
  • ŸKowalski to Smith
  • ŸZimmermann to Carpenter
  • ŸCarl O. Jansen a.k.a. Chas. O. Johnstone

Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges’ A Dictionary of Surnames. Oxford University Press. (1988) have included translations of all common occupational names, a great boon for those who cannot track their folk across the Atlantic. The IGI can be of use, especially the fiche edition which refers to other spellings and Gaelic or other foreign forms.

  • ŸChanging the form of the name to that of the new country, technically termed phonetic assimilation to a cognate existing name or word, as in:
  • ŸIvarsson to MacIver (Norse to Scots)
  • ŸMacDonald to Donaldson (Scots to English)
  • ŸMcCaughern to Cochrane (variation in Scotland)
  • Anglicization to the nearest-sounding name, termed phonetic assimilation to an unrelated name, as in:
  • ŸDrouet to Drewiitt
  • ŸEsbjörn to Osborn
  • ŸLanglois to Langley
  • ŸMahieu to Mayheiw
  • ŸO’Baoghail to Boiyle
  • Completely new names when the clerk gave up with an unpronounceable foreign name, or couldn’t read a different alphabet. Any fairly common name could result. What the immigration officers would have done with the strange sounds of Rødgaard, Læsø or Skrædder is anybody’s guess!!

Hanks and Hodges (1988), mentioned above, recommend Mencken as the most comprehensive source of anglicization practices. A new website will be helpful to those who cannot figure out the original surname in another language. The First Name Translator is devoted to those searching by first name or middle name.

Sometimes the law in the new country required a change of name to fit in with the spoken and written language of the majority. Sometimes names revert to a former style when politics change or the family returns home. Movement between areas using patronymic surnames and inherited surnames may cause a family to suddenly ‘disappear’ until one thinks to look under the new style of naming practice in the new country.

For example, consider the situation of a theoretical Thomas Wright moving from his native Gloucestershire, England into the neighbouring Monmouthshire, Wales prior to 1813. Children born in England would all be surnamed Wright, but those born in Wales would automatically be considered as having the surname Thomas, in the patronymic style.

Illegitimacy and Later Marriage of Parents

This example illustrates perfectly the kind of situation that arises in many families (Joyce Ream, personal communication). Robert Jackson Nice was born in 1817 to Elizabeth Nice, she indicating his paternity by giving her son the middle name of Jackson. He was christened in 1818 on the wedding day of his parents, John Jackson and Elizabeth Nice. In 1841 Robert Jackson Nice married Caroline Garmany and in the 1841 and 1851 censuses they are Robert and Caroline Nice. However in 1861 they were Robert and Caroline Jackson! Their children were:

  • ŸRosa Maria born Jackson but christened Nice
  • Phoebe Ellen died Jackson Nice, buried Nice
  • Ÿ Frederick born and christened Nice but married as Jackson
  • Martha’s maiden name was registered as Jackson for two of her children and Nice for another one

Robert Jackson Nice and his wife Caroline both died as Jacksons. In order to understand such a family it is necessary to research the whole family, not just your particular ancestor amongst the children.

Common-law Marriages

This is a real problem for the family historian as the wife died under her new surname. When working backwards there may be few, if any, references to her maiden name. Those trying to trace what happened to these women are stymied if the new surname is not known.

It takes a creative and thorough combing of all possible records to make headway in these cases. When divorce was less available common-law marriage was an option for those separated from their spouses. When a marriage cannot be traced it is always smart to consider the possibility of this being a second, common-law union, especially if the parties were well into their twenties or older. Progress can often be made if the children are traced on each census with their own families, as a parent may be visiting or indeed permanently living with one of them.


It was not uncommon for apprentices, having served their term of seven years, to take their master’s surname and abandon their own. Perhaps some did this in hopes of marrying the master’s daughter and inheriting the business?

Differentiation of People and Families

Swedish Army Names

In countries using the patronymic system there are many people having the same first and surname in each battalion of the army. These had to be differentiated by nicknames or second surnames. A solution common in Sweden was the addition or substitution of an army name for the young men as they joined up for military service. The chosen names were typically ordinary vocabulary words of disposition, weapons or heroic character, such as Munter (‘happy’), Sabel (‘saber’) and Tapper (‘brave’). Since they proved pragmatic they were usually maintained after the young man left the army (Johansson).

Replacing Common Surnames

In Italy families often took the mother’s maiden name if there were too many people in their village already holding the father’s surname (Hawgood). In Scandinavia this has been done in the 20th century to stand out from the crowd of Hansens, Jensens and Christensens making up about a third of the telephone directory! For example, in my husband’s family three of the four Christensen sons remaining in Denmark changed to their mother’s maiden surname of Strøm, which was their middle name, for business reasons.

Errors in Records

The problem of not finding people under the name you expect in the records presents a problem that can be solved with some creative thinking. My ancestress Sarah Ann Louisa Topping first married Michael James Hammant who died, then was found as Mrs. John Briggs in 1851, but in 1861 this couple seemed to revert to Hammant and would have been missed if I had only checked for Briggs, which was the surname that they both died under.

Lodemore recounts the tale of a relative who started life being christened in England as Lucas Punshon, was known later by the nickname Luke Panshon, Puncheon, or Punchon, travelled to Austria as Matthew Fletcher, married as Matthew Punshon and died in America as Matthew Fletcher. Only a family legend that this man had changed his name allowed for the unravelling of this man’s history.

The ability to search electronically with just a given name together with a year of birth or birthplace proves a boon for finding people whose surnames are recorded incorrectly or who have changed their surname for whatever reason.


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
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

Category: England