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Kimberly Powell

Get Creative with Name Spellings

By July 7, 2011

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Our ancestors did it. The census takers did it. The transcribers did it. So we have to as well. It's a rare thing to find an ancestor whose name appears in historical records year after year spelled exactly the same way each time. Even a seemingly simple name such as Owens, will often appear as Owen, Owins, Owings or even Owns.

There are many creative ways to find alternate surname variations, but I also wanted to share an online tool that I find handy for this purpose. British Origins, one of the sites I use in my English research, employs a name search technology known as NameX. Created by Image Partners, NameX is based on a Last name thesaurus containg 75 million entries for 1.5 million distinct last names and a First name thesaurus containing over 3 million entries for 260,000 distinct first names. This generally results in fewer, more accurate name variants than Soundex. For example, while NameX identifies 21 highly plausible variants for the surname Owens, Soundex identifies 659 "variants," of which nearly 90% are extremely unlikely (eg. Oyoumick, Ounnoughi, Onehawk). NameX does miss a few likely ones, of course, such as Owins, but it also provides a much more reasonable number of surnames to wade through than Soundex.

I find the First Name Thesaurus to be of particular help, since Soundex doesn't address this, and many genealogy databases don't offer anything other than wildcard searching for first names. A search for Kimberly brings up some great variations, including Kim, Kimberley, Kymberly and Kimberlee.

The NameX name matching technology is sold to companies, but the Surname Thesaurus (which includes a Forename Thesaurus) is available on the Web, and can be freely accessed for personal use. A great resource the next time you need some help getting your creative juices flowing!

July 12, 2011 at 3:07 am
(1) Goulooze says:

Dear Kim, this must be the single most useful tool I’ve come across since taking up genealogy! Thanks for pointing this one out. One surname in particular I’ve been researching (McAnespy) comes with a lot of nonsense using soundex, but now I have a manageable list of possible alternate spellings. Some of these have proved helpful in previous searches, but I’ve only found those alternatives through trial and error. Now I have a whole other set!

August 10, 2011 at 8:28 pm
(2) KimbroughL says:

Thanks for this article. Something I’ve also found useful is to ask family members, including my now 13 year old daughter to make a list of various spellings they can think of. Also, asking friends, neighbors or co-workers for whom English is not their native language how they would spell a name can be helpful too.

September 13, 2011 at 5:02 pm
(3) Margaret says:

I am very happy you posted this tip. I have found namex searches on irish Origins much more helpful than Soundex, and wished they used this on Ancestry.com. It’s great to know I can access this myself online to augment the automated searches.

It’s also helpful to know what it doesn’t do. In my case, Namex returns a lot more useful items for the surname Tate than Ancestry searches; however, it does not return Pate or Fate. I found two crucial census records indexed this way. I found these by searching on first names, birthdate/place, location, spouse, etc with *ate or ?ate.

Remember there were no spelling rules or even fountain pens until later in the 19th century. Think about how you might spell an unfamiliar name that someone is telling you in an unfamiliar accent. Tate in a thick Irish brogue could well have been spelled Teate phonetically.

Enumerators were writing with pens that they had to dip in inkwells. If they made a mistake, correcting it was very difficult. If they did try to correct something, it usually turned out illegible anyway. I’ll bet they just let it go unless someone insisted.

How would your handwriting would be in the conditions under which they were working – did you ever have trouble deciphering your own notes from a class, for instance? Also, they formed their letters differently because of the writing implements they used. For instance, a lot of strokes that appear superfluous to us were actually necessary to get the ink flowing before they started the actual character, or to keep from leaving a big blob on the paper at the end of a stroke.

Who would think a short name like Tate could have so many variants? But think how easy it would be to for Tate to look like Tute or Teet in cursive if you got sloppy. This is pretty hard to mix up in type fonts, but could easily happen with handwriting. Think handwriting, then translate your ideas into type for your search.

September 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm
(4) ~Kimberly says:

Great feedback and information Margaret. Thanks so much!

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