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Now browsing: Hometown News > Family Issues > Brenda Smith

Brenda Smith
This Week | Archive

The Name's the Same
Rating: 2.95 / 5 (199 votes)  
Posted: 2008 Jan 18 - 02:56

I remember my father always saying, "Their family is not related to us, they spell their name differently."

It didn't take me long after starting my research to discover why my grandmother's name was different. For some reason, her father decided to change the "e" to an "i." His brothers kept the traditional spelling.

Following my father's instructions, those uncles would not be related to us, and I would be at an even higher brick wall.

Until recent generations, exact spellings of names did not matter. Words were just sounds and most people never had the name written down. Literacy did not become widespread until the late 1800s.

Don't make the common mistake of getting hung up on the exact spelling of your name, or you will be hopelessly lost in the quagmire of name changes, mistakes, mispronunciations and horrible handwriting.

When looking for your names, either first or last, let your imagination be your guide.

Variations in spelling can vary from person to person, family groups, generations, documents, and certainly depend on the person trying to index census records, etc.

Even the simplest name can, and will, vary in spelling: Smith, Smithe, Smit, Smyth, Smythe, Smidt, Schmid, Schmit, and on and on.

You will almost always find some differences in the spelling of your ancestors' name; however, the correct spelling is not as important as determining that it is the correct ancestor.

If all the other pieces of the puzzle fit, you are probably safe to assume it is the correct person.

Anyone who has transcribed a document has seen a surname spelled more than one way in the same document. This will happen when a will or deed is written by a clerk or attorney, spelling the name the way they think it is spelled.

The document is then signed by the person the way he actually spells his name, or at least spelled it at that moment. Or maybe someone else signed it for him, and he just put his X on it.

First name spellings have never been very standardized so most people spell their name like they choose. Surname spellings vary for many reasons.

Quite often, illiteracy made it necessary for someone else to do the writing. That person may also have had limited writing skills.

Regional accents and mispronunciations also caused spelling differences. A "B" may be heard as a "P" or a "V" heard as a "W". As you've probably noticed, Southerners say things somewhat differently than northerners, which means that the spelling would be completely different if spelled phonetically.

In fact, when spoken, a word can be unrecognizable to someone from a different part of the country.

Vowels also can become anything the writer chooses.

An "i" can be an "e", "ie", "y", "ey", "ee", or maybe he will just make it an "a".

Consonants also change or become single or double, "l" or "ll".

The classic case is my grandmother's name, Gillispie, the name her father changed. The only thing constant in this name is the G. The first "I" can also be an "e" or an "a".

The l's can be single or double, then another "i", "e", or "a". The S and P can be single or double and the ending can be anything you want. So I can end up with Galespee, Gillaspey, Gelisspy, etc.

Immigration caused more drastic name changes. Immigration officers often wrote difficult foreign names in a more familiar form, which sounded English.

Families themselves changed their names slightly or entirely, to blend in more with the society into which they were living. They shortened them, added or dropped consonants, to make them easier to spell and pronounce. Some changed their name to disguise their nationality.

When reading the census, you will find the census taker will spell a given name the same way, all the way through his district. That is the way he hears it and feels it should be spelled.

On the next census of the same district, another census taker may spell the same name differently. No one cared, as long as it was pronounced correctly, and everyone knew who was being discussed.

Learn to go with your instinct when you see a novel spelling for your ancestor. However, remember, you still must dot all the "i's" and cross all the "t's" to prove that it truly is your ancestor, and not just someone with the same name.

Brenda Knight Smith

Treasure Coast Genealogy Society


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