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How to Find Your Family When No One Can Spell

Did you know that one of the commonly misspelled words is MISPELL?

Misspelled Names

Sometimes a record is overlooked simply because the name is incorrect. There are some things you can do to make sure you see everything ofinterest. I have been transcribing county records and census records for severalyears and I was always amused at the number of ways I saw the same name spelled.Once I realized how difficult that can make research, I quit being amused.

The hardest thing for some folks to understand is that up until 50 years ago, most of the adults in this country were illiterate. (Evennow it is somewhere around 40%.) So when a county record or census record wasmade, the clerks did the writing and most of the spelling. Even in well-educatedfamilies, they sometimes spoke with an accent (local or foreign) which made itdifficult. Remember, if both parents were immigrants, the children probablyspoke with an accent, too. Not to mention that no one really cared how a name was spelled.

Poor Handwriting

Although the clerks could read and write, that does not mean they were good at spelling or that their handwriting was legible. Many of thoseclerks were working with foreign names. (i.e. Braun became Brown, Zinn becameSenn and vice versa, and descriptive names were translated to English.) As timehas passed, we have indexed most of our county records and the person whocreated the index had to decipher handwriting which might be a hundred years old(or even two hundred on the eastern side of the country). Ink fades, handwritingstyles change and some names pass into obscurity.

One of my favorite examples is our BRAZZILline. They were probably originally English BRACEWELLs but they may have beenIrish BREAZEALEs. Pronunciation is the only guide in this case since our Brazzilrhymes with dazzle and Bracewell is pronounced the same. Breazeale is accentedon the second syllable and sounds more like the South American Country ofBrazil. So how did we get Brazzil?


Well, when the first child in this family learned to write and spell in this country , his teacher probably did the best he could to spell the child's name. If the child said BRAZ-ul, that's how it was spelled. (And I thinksome folks liked to add some flourish to it.) I currently have 57 differentspellings on my Brazzil web site - including Brassle.) I have concluded that aslong as there is a B R Z L or B R S L, you can add any combination of vowels anddouble letters and still have BRAZZIL or BRAZIL when you pronounce it. When Isearch for records for this family, I look in the counties they inhabited atANYTHING that contains those consonants in that order - even O'Brazzil, which isvery rare.

Some letters sound alike, the Soundexcode is based on that. Look at the letters that are in the groups andfamiliarize yourself with them. C and G when used with other consonants becomedifficult to understand. Learn the alphabets of your immigrant ancestors. Bh inIrish is V; Si is Sh. In Spanish the vowels are not at all what you expect,instead of ay ee eye oh you - it's ah ay ee oh ooo - J is H and H is silent. InGerman, you pronounce the second vowel - Stein is Stine, not Steen.

So now we have discussed illiterateancestors, accents, clerks with poor spelling and writing skills and clerks whomight not be familiar with some of the names. I recently saw the name Eda for ayoung lady who was about to get married. It took me a moment to realize it wasnot E-da but Ed-a (Etta). It was a case of a name being spelled the way it waspronounced.

Handwriting Styles

Some of the more common mistakes I haveseen in transcriptions are mistaking the first letter of the name (T L and F),confusing lower case N M U W and R, and getting the name backwards - is itAnderson Blake or Blake Anderson? Some examples:

Harrison - Garrison - Denison
Calloway - Galloway  (which also sound a lot alike)
Greer - Creer   (sight and sound)
Goins - Joines - Jones - Johns
Gossett - Dossett
Wills - Mills - Wells
Hamson - Harrison
Devire - Dwire
Lam - Lane
Burton - Barton (small u and a are very diffucult, as are d and cl)
Hamitt - Harriett
Flewellen - Llewellen
Tinley - Finley
Guinn - Ginn - Gunn
Cwen - Gwen - Quinn

You get the idea.

You should be aware of the letters andspellings that go with your surname AND be aware of nicknames. I have SHEPHERDsin my family. At a family reunion just after I caught the genealogy bug, Ipassed around blank family group sheets and when they started coming back Irealized that, within our family, there were three different spellings. When Imentioned it the next year, each family was sure they were spelling itcorrectly. I also learned that the patriarch, Sam, was actually named SamuelDavidson. I find his old records under Dave. A g-g-grandfather was named Wilhelmand went by Fred (middle name Frederick) - I started finding records. GeorgeAlexander was either G A or Alex, never George. I was lucky that I still had mygrandmother when I started on those last two families.

When I am looking at other people'stranscriptions, I see some of the oddest names - like Hamitt. Why would someonename their daughter Hamitt? With a little research, I realized it was Harriett.When you see those odd names, take a moment to look at what they are and try toget a clerk to add a note that it "could be" something else. I still haven'tfigured out Fopoue but it's probably supposed to be a q.

More examples:
Juner - Junior
Oziar - Isaiah or Hosea
Lije or Lige - Elijah
Apeline - pronounce each vowel, Appollina - or maybe Adeline
Indeana - Indiana

Then we have the folks who named theirsons with the maternal surname. There are also lots of women with surnames forgiven names. Sometimes transcribers get them backwards. Sometimes County Clerksgot them backwards. Many women had names like Desderuvia which is far too longto say quickly so they became Ruvie (Ruby) or Derry. Brazoria was a commongirl's name in Texas and almost always shortened to Zora. Texanna became Sanna,Theodosia - Docie, Arminta - Minta or Minnie.

We also have nicknames that don't makesense. Patsy is Martha, Mollie or Pollie for Mary, Jack for John, Sallie forSarah, Fanny for Frances, Nannie for Hannah or Nancy, and Peg or Meg for Margaret. How manynicknames can you get out of Elizabeth? Try Eliza, Liz, Lizzie, Beth, Betty,Bets, Betsy, and Ellie (not to be confused with Ella which is from somewhereelse). Pherily? maybe it's Farrah Lee. I've also seen Abba Gal. Illegible signatures

Look at your surname and decide whatmistakes in pronunciation are possible. Now, how many ways are there to spellthe original and the mispronunciations? Okay, now look at transcription errors.Write it out in cursive and pay attention to things like rr and n or m , u and n , w and m , i and e , t and l , y and z , C and G , T and L or F or even I , D and S or I and J . I've seen Samson become Danson. I have terriblehandwriting so I usually print. Look what happens to my name when I write.

When you have your list of possibilities,go back to the courthouse and see what you can find.

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© 1996 - 2007, Kim Jarrell Johnson
© 2007 - present, Paul V.Isbell
unless otherwise noted.

This page was last updated
26 February 2013