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Spelling Doesn't Count

by Donna Przecha
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Playing with Variations
Having a firm spelling of one's name is a fairly recent occurrence. Donna Przecha shows you how to use variations in spelling to find more information about your ancestors.

Frequently when you ask beginning researchers what surnames they are working on they will say, "Browne — with an e" or "Vaughan — that's an" or "Prichard — without the t." While it may seem that they are being extra careful to get the right family, they may be making a big mistake. When it comes to old documents, spelling doesn't count, especially with names. Instead of narrowing the field of research with exact spelling, it is important to enlarge it as much as possible with every possible spelling. One researcher said she could add five generations onto another researcher's line, but the second person wouldn't accept the information because the name was spelled Browne and her family only used Brown.

Prior to Samuel Johnson publishing the first Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, there were no spelling rules. Even today there really are no rules for spelling names. You can spell your name any way you want. With modern records, once you have a social security card (now issued at birth), a birth certificate and a driver's license or passport, it is usually too much trouble to vary the spelling. Records are computerized, can easily be crosschecked and if everything doesn't match exactly, you don't exist! While a person is pretty much committed to the parents' way of spelling the surname, it is easy to see there are even fewer rules nowadays for spelling first names. Sherry may be Sherree, Sheri or even Shayree. Laurie could be Lori, Laurey, Lauree, Laury, Lory, Lorie, Loree, etc.

Unusual given names might be spelled phonetically in documents. Given names, then as now, often had nicknames. While Liz or Beth for Elizabeth is easy to understand, in many cases, the nickname used in the 17th century does not stand for the same name today. Polly was a common nickname for Mary. Marguerite might be called Daisy since the former is the French word for the flower.

As previously mentioned, nowadays people are usually consistent in spelling their surnames. Why weren't our ancestors consistent? There are two big reasons: 1) The ancestor may not have been literate and 2) the record was created by another person. If the ancestor was unable to read and write, he may not have known how to spell his own name at all. Even if he had memorized the spelling, a literate person recording the information may not have asked. Records we use for research are mostly church records, civil records, wills and census records. These were usually written by a non-family member — a clergyman, census enumerator, town or county clerk. The recorders may have thought they knew best how to spell a name and did not even bother to ask. The illiterate farmer would not presume to correct an educated minister. For more information on common variations and why they occurred, see's Name and Word Spellings.

You should write down every possible spelling variation and check each one. This can be time consuming in an alphabetical list (much easier if it is Soundex) but it is essential. The name Truesdell can begin Trus or Trues and end with dale, del, dell or dle — quite a few possibilities. However, one essential marriage record was recorded as Trasdle — and missed because the researcher (yours truly) did not cast a wide enough net! The family, of English origin, lived for a while in Quebec where there are many French families named Truedell. Strangely enough, these two names never seemed to be used interchangeably. However, it is necessary to scan the Truedells in an index looking for any with English given names. You may find in an area two surnames that are very similar but it almost seems that everyone knew they were different and made a special effort to keep them straight in records.

Another reason for spelling variations could be an accent when saying the name. It is very difficult to know what type of accent a person had 300 years ago. One name that has two different spellings is Royce and Rice. To American ears this seems very different, but anyone who has watched an English TV program is probably aware that people with heavy regional accents may say "royte" for "right." On the other hand, if you have watched Archie Bunker on TV he routinely says "chice" (rhyming with rice) for "choice." So either spelling, Royce or Rice, might be pronounced either way, depending on the accent. If this can happen with a one syllable English name, think of the possibilities with foreign names.

When researchers find letters or wills that they believe were written by their ancestors, they are sometimes dismayed by the spelling and grammar they find — "was borned" in the family Bible is not unusual. Since there were no spelling rules prior to 1755 in England or, 1828 in the U.S. when Noah Webster published the first American dictionary, you should not worry about spelling. Prior to 1755 everyone spelled as they deemed fit. Since English words come from Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, German, Danish, French and a host of other languages, there are many different ways of forming the same sound, depending on which language rules you are following. One scholar might have felt it appeared more learned to use Latin or French roots whereas a more practical person might feel a word should be spelled as it sounded — bot, not bought. (This argument continues to this day with many linguists proposing radical changes in spelling so that words are spelled as they sound. This would make spelling easier for future generations but would create years of confusion for those who learned the old rules.) Even in the 19th century it is obvious from looking at letters and wills that standard spelling still was not widely accepted.

Census, parish and vital records usually contain fairly standard information so spelling of words is not too much of a problem. Some of these records may contain occupations that may be spelled in a variety of ways — joyner or joiner (carpenter). The bigger problem usually is an obsolete occupation or name.

Beginners often make two common mistakes when reading handwritten documents. They create spelling errors where none exist because they do not know that some letters used to be written differently. The word we usually read as "ye" as in Ye Olde Shoppe is not a strange, outdated word at all. The letter that appears to be a y is actually a character known as a thorn that stood for the letters "th." "Ye" is actually a very modern "the" using an outdated symbol. In both typeset and handwritten documents, it appeared that words with two esses were spelled fs. (For more information on reading old handwriting see Tips for Reading Old Records.) The letter that appears to be an f is actually the accepted way of writing the first s. It was never intended to represent an f. The silent e on the end of almost any word was common. Doubling letters was also popular — "shoppe" being a good example of both. Perhaps the writers felt these extra letters gave the word more substance and somehow made it more important!

Reading wills can be a genealogist's biggest challenge. They will probably be handwritten so you will have to try to decipher the script. Spelling will be inconsistent with words being spelled differently within the same document. The terms will often be archaic so not only will you not know the correct spelling, you might not know what it is even when spelled correctly. One very helpful publication is A Glossary of Household, Farming and Trade Terms from Probate Inventories by Rosemary Milward (Derbyshire Record Society, Occasional Paper No. 1). While this applies primarily to terms in English wills, many of those terms will be found in American wills. It contains many variations for some of the words. For example, mattress could be mateshess, materes, materessy, matrice, matrysey or ploughs might appear as plows, plogthes, ploes, plawes, plaghes, plowgthes, plose, ployths or plosse. You need to be careful in sounding out words because it would be easy to confuse ploughs in one of the above variations with pillows which could be peylowes, pyllas, pillues or pelowys. Unfortunately, in wills items are often listed with no description and no context to give a hint where or how it was used. While these terms are modern words when spelled one way, you will run across terms that have no modern equivalent. You might wonder what a joynt table or cabinet might be. It simply meant a piece of furniture made by a joiner. A maunde (mande, mawnde) was a wicker basket and a portmantle (portmantue, portmanoe) a trunk, words you might not find in a modern dictionary.

When you are working with words you know might be out of date and spelled differently, you must be very careful. If you see "lyckerd butts", you might assume that they are a number of casks (butts) storing alcoholic beverages but it actually refers to the tanning of leather used for soles of shoes.If you assume the "cressett" is a reference to the family crest, you will be disappointed to learn it is a small iron vessel to hold oil to be burned as a torch. While a sake, secke or seike is what it appears — a sack — sacke is the name of dry Spanish white wines imported from early in the 16th century. Noggin or nogging is not a head, but a small drinking vessel. It can also refer to a small quantity of liquor. Hassocks are not footstools but tufts of rushes or coarse grass.

When dealing with unusual terms and spelling, it might be a good idea to consult someone more experienced in that field to make sure you are not starting down the wrong path that could cause you much wasted time and money.

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Step-by-Step Guide: Name and Word Spellings
How-To Article: American Surnames
Expert tips: A Look at Middle Names

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