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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 of interest. I have been transcribing county records and census records for several years 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. (Even now it's somewhere around 40%.) So when a county record or census record was made, the clerks did the writing and most of the spelling. Even in well-educated families, they sometimes spoke with an accent (local or foreign) which made it difficult. Remember, if both parents were immigrants, the children probably spoke 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 those clerks were working with foreign names. (i.e. Braun became Brown, Zinn became Senn and vice versa, and descriptive names were translated to English.) As time has passed, we have indexed most of our county records and the person who created 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, handwriting styles change and some names pass into obscurity.

One of my favorite examples is our BRAZZIL line. They were probably originally English BRACEWELLs but they may have been Irish BREAZEALEs. Pronunciation is the only guide in this case since our Brazzil rhymes with dazzle and Bracewell is pronounced the same. Breazeale is accented on the second syllable and sounds more like the South American Country of Brazil. 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 think some folks liked to add some flourish to it.) I currently have 57 different spellings on my Brazzil web site - including Brassle.) I have concluded that as long as there is a B R Z L or B R S L, you can add any combination of vowels and double letters and still have BRAZZIL or BRAZIL when you pronounce it. When I search for records for this family, I look in the counties they inhabited at ANYTHING that contains those consonants in that order - even O'Brazzil, which is very rare.

Some letters sound alike, the Soundex code is based on that. Look at the letters that are in the groups and familiarize yourself with them. C and G when used with other consonants become difficult to understand. Learn the alphabets of your immigrant ancestors. Bh in Irish 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. In German, you pronounce the second vowel - Stein is Stine, not Steen.

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

Handwriting Styles
Some of the more common mistakes I have seen 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 it Anderson 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 and spellings that go with your surname AND be aware of nicknames. I have SHEPHERDs in my family. At a family reunion just after I caught the genealogy bug, I passed around blank family group sheets and when they started coming back I realized that, within our family, there were three different spellings. When I mentioned it the next year, each family was sure they were spelling it correctly. I also learned that the patriarch, Sam, was actually named Samuel Davidson. I find his old records under Dave. A g-g-grandfather was named Wilhelm and went by Fred (middle name Frederick) - I started finding records. George Alexander was either G A or Alex, never George. I was lucky that I still had my grandmother when I started on those last two families.

When I am looking at other people's transcriptions, I see some of the oddest names - like Hamitt. Why would someone name 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 to get a clerk to add a note that it "could be" something else. I still haven't figured 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 their sons with the maternal surname. There are also lots of women with surnames for given names. Sometimes transcribers get them backwards. Sometimes County Clerks got them backwards. Many women had names like Desderuvia which is far too long to say quickly so they became Ruvie (Ruby) or Derry. Brazoria was a common girl'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 make sense. Patsy is Martha, Mollie or Pollie for Mary, Jack for John, Sallie for Sarah, Fanny for Frances, Nannie for Hannah or Nancy, and Peg or Meg for Margaret. How many nicknames 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 somewhere else). Pherily? maybe it's Farrah Lee. I've also seen Abba Gal. Illegible signatures

Look at your surname and decide what mistakes in pronunciation are possible. Now, how many ways are there to spell the 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
I and J.
I've seen Samson become Danson. I have terrible handwriting 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.