Spelling Variations


In most cases, if you turn back the clock less than a century, you will find at least one or perhaps more examples of a spelling change in a surname.

The rather recent insistence that a surname is spelt the same way through a person's lifetime is essential for today's computer data bases, whether it be a driver's license, social insurance listing or birth record.

But by turning back the clock we found that many illustrious people frequently spelled their name in various ways including William Shakespeare who spelled his name Shakespeare, Shakespere, Shakespear, Shakspere and Shaxspere.

A quick look in the Domesday Book will give the reader a good insight to the drastic way in which names have changed. By the way, it is indeed rare to find a current spelling of a surname in the Domesday Book.

To confuse matters more, it was a common practice in the 11th and 12th centuries to Latinize names in official records. Thus, we find Fulford as de Turpi Vado.

"Variant of family names are extraordinary in number. The Mannerings of Cheshire are said to have 137 different ways of spelling the name in the their archives. I think it was Mr. Chaloner Smith who found over 400 variations of Cushion in old wills, &c."[1]

"Throughout the Middle Ages surname were constantly changing. William Tyndal was known as Huchyns when living in Gloucestershire. Oliver Cromwell was a Williams. David Livingstone was a McLeay... The modern form of many of our surnames is comparatively recent, often preserving a phonetic spelling found in the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century parish register."[2]

Passenger Lists

Names have often been changed to make it easier for people to spell upon their arrival in the Americas. A good example of this is the name Schneider that is often changed to Snider. In some cases, names are Anglicized because while the spelling in their homeland is commonplace, in the Americas, it would be very confusing and difficult to record. The name Schröder is often changed to Schroeder or Schroder.

“It should be remembered that names of emigrants were often recorded as they were heard, that many emigrants could not spell their own names, and that authorities were not as literate as one would wish. Thus variations in spelling of names occur, and members if the same family arriving at different times or places may be found under more than one spelling. In using the PILI [Passenger and Immigration Lists Index], the researcher should search for every conceivable spelling of the name sought.”[3]


Today's rather clinical approach to exactitude in most things should not be carried to genealogical searches. Too many times people in their search for their ancestors have discarded people who have a different spelling of their surname, only to find later that this was another example of history's very relaxed attitude to spelling.

Spelling variations are still frequent today and are often found in the government's registries. In your search, always keep every possible record of a name that sounds like yours. Many registries in the US provide Soundex searches for surnames. This is the key for your research, particularly for names that have been found in North America for some time. If, in the end, one of these phonetic variations is found to be of no use, then that information can be discarded. It's much easier to discard such a reference than having to rediscover the reference again.

See Also


  1. ^Bardsley, C.W, A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames: With Special American Instances. Wiltshire: Heraldry Today, 1901. Print. (ISBN 0-900455-44-6) pp 6
  2. ^Reaney P.H and R.M. Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames. London: Routledge, 1991. Print. (ISBN 0-415-05737-X) pp xi
  3. ^Filby, P. William and Mary K Meyer, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index in Four Volumes. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. Print. (ISBN 0-8103-1795-8), vol 1 pp ix
  4. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials
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