Don’t let your family search be derailed by the spelling of names

As you continue with your family search the spelling of names is an issue you can expect to encounter.

Records dating back to anytime before the mid-19th century are likely to contain various spellings for the same individual name.

This is because government officials would write down names as they thought best. They usually did a fair job recording names as they would sound phonetically.

However, these spellings would always be down to the interpretation of one individual. There are are likely to be inconsistencies.

For example, if you have an ancestor named Boylan in your family tree. Then of course it is best to begin your searches using the correct spelling.

However, it would also be sensible to check a few variations of the spelling that could have been recorded in the past.

Bolan, Boylen, Boyland and Boland are just the first few variations of spellings you may encounter.

This potential stumbling block highlights the need to add as much information as you can about an individual in your family tree.

Your family search may find relatives that have different spellings for the same name

Say you already know that your great-grandfather was named James Boylan, lived in Co Wicklow, Ireland in the late 19th-century and married a woman named Mary.

This knowledge will prove vital. It will help identify the correct individual if you can’t find an exact match in terms of the spelling or Boylan.

You may find the record of the marriage certificate but with the surname spelt differently.

This is where you must use the information you have at your disposal to make a sensible assumption.

Check all the other details of the individual match up – age, date of marriage, location etc. If they do then you can assume you have the correct person.

It is always a judgement call and you have to weigh up all the information available.

Be prepared to find ancestors with a different spelling of your family name

Be willing to accept you have the right person even if the names are spelt differently, but also be wary that it is a potential pitfall in your search.

The more details you have about an individual to back up the theory that they are the right person the better. Do you know their occupation? How many children they had? Did they ever get into any trouble with the law?

Names can be recorded with different spellings for other reasons too.

For example, the renowned playwright ­­William Shakespeare appears to have spelled his surname in six or more different ways over his lifetime. That is according to the various records of his signature – and he was the greatest writer in history!

Many people would not have been able to read and write when some records were taken. Therefore, they would not have known the correct way to spell their names.

This is when the government clerks would use their own discretion. So it is also where the potential for confusion begins.

So, don’t be alarmed if your search leads you into another version of spelling of your family name.

It is more important to ensure the rest of the details around the individual point to the fact that he or she was part of your family tree.

Full list of articles and resources on Family Tree Planner

Key points to take away

  • The way you now spell your family name is not necessarily the way it was always recorded by your ancestors or government officials
  • Work with the information you do know about your ancestor; birthplace, spouse, children etc.
  • Even the great William Shakespeare used more than one spelling of his name throughout his life.