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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: T' ain't Mine, T' ain't Spelt Rite
by Rhonda R. McClure

July 25, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

I can always tell which ladies magazine I used to subscribe to has sold their mailing list again, or when someone has pulled out the old mailing list because of the way a junk mail envelope is addressed. In addition to McClure, the normal spelling of my surname, I have had two different misspellings from getting magazine subscriptions over the phone many years ago.

I bring this up because although today we seem obsessed with the exact spelling of our name, there are still those who are making mistakes with them. I still received my magazines even though my name was misspelled. However, I have seen many genealogists make a grave mistake by dismissing families or individuals because the name isn't spelled the way they think it should be.

Spelling doesn't count.

He Always Spelled it That Way

Too often I hear researchers saying "My ancestor always spelled his name that way." They feel that this somehow justifies looking for the one spelling. While your ancestor may indeed have signed his name that way throughout his life, it is unlikely that others who recorded his name, including the census enumerator, the county clerk and the tax collector, wrote it the same way that he did.

I have often mentioned a land record I have for my Ayer family in which my ancestor's name is spelled three different ways in the one land deed. Of course, at the bottom my ancestor signed it the way he always did — with his mark — a big X.

You see, many of the people we are tracing were hard working, God fearing farmers with little education. Others, while they may have had an education would sometimes do what the county clerk said. If the county clerk told them to make their mark, some would make an X even if they knew how to sign their name.

We in the 21st century are obsessed with spelling. You get back to the early 1900s or earlier and you will quickly find that not only weren't people obsessed with spelling, they simply didn't seem to care at all. Provided the document gave them their legal rights, they didn't care how names were spelled.

Is It Legal?

Some of you may be asking why they were so careless with the spelling in legal documents. How could a document be legally binding if the name wasn't spelled correctly throughout the document? Through idem sonans.

Idem sonans is a legal term. According to Black's Law Dictionary it means

Sounding the same or alike; having the same sound. A term applied to names which are substantially the same, though slightly varied in the spelling as "Lawrence" and "Lawrance," and the like.

This means that provided the name sounds the same, even though the spelling is different, it is still the same person and therefore legally binding.

Identifying Your Ancestor

So, if the name isn't always spelled the same, how do you identify an individual as being your ancestor? You have to look at the broader picture. A colleague asked me to do a look up for her while I was working with census records in a given area one time. I found what looked like the individual in question, but told my colleague that I was unsure given the family she was living with. The woman, an elderly widow, was living with a Berma McBride. However, my colleague responded to me that indeed I had found the individual and that was the daughter. While the daughter was listed in the 1900 census as Berma, in earlier census records she was listed as Buena, a popular name of the time. Having identified this Buena, and realizing that Berma was a known variation, she knew I had found the woman when I wasn't sure.

Knowing the others in the family is essential to identifying your individual. So often I have found families in the census where some of the children are listed with only initials, while others their given name spelled out. Worse yet is when the children are listed with nicknames. A client was completely unconvinced for a long time that the family I had located in the 1920 census was hers because of the nickname of one of the children.

In Conclusion

Spelling variations, abbreviations, initials and nicknames can all cause problems if we are not willing to examine the entries with an open mind and with a good understanding of the family. Knowing the nicknames for certain given names and naming patterns of the different eras can be helpful in identifying your ancestor as well.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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