State Library of South Australia

What's in a name?

Date: 3 June 2015

More than you would expect, when you are in the throes of genealogical research. Given a vowel: a, e, i,o or u and any letter with the potential to be doubled such as n, m, t, s, or l, you can be sure that your research has increased due to the number of possibilities in the subsequent spelling of the name. This isn't a big problem when reading a bound volume or card index of names. But it is important to be aware of the variations in spelling when searching computer databases.

Example of a passenger list
Example of a passenger list

For example, Matthews is spelt Mathews. That leads us to the other practice of adding or removing an 's' from the end of a name, so we have Matthew and Mathew as well. Then there is the random addition of a 'd' to the end of a name such as Kinnear, developing into Kinneard.

Worst offenders include the last name Donald. We move on to Donnally, Donell, Donellan, Donelley, Donelly, Donnelan, Donnell, Donnellan, Donnelly, Donnerly, Donnolan, Donnollen, Donolan, Donolly and Donoughy. Old MacDonald had a farm, indeed! And of course we mustn't overlook McDonald.

Kaethner has about 14 variations and another tricky name is Hamlin. This can also be Hambling, Hambly, Hambry, Hamby, Hamley and Hamlyn. Meanwhile Flanagan, Flanaghan, Flannagan, Flanigan, Flannigan is frustrating and Gardener, Gardner and Gardiner can be a trap.

Before contemporary standardised recordkeeping, names were spelt in whatever form the writer chose at any specific time. Women merrily changed between such names as Hanorah, Norah or Nora, and Hannah, Anna, Ann, Anne or Hanna. When reading old birth indexes it sometimes appears that the mother of a household of children was different in each case until a common thread is perceived. Perhaps also in earlier times society was so constrained that women especially had few respectable ways to express their individuality and few diversions beyond handicrafts, music, reading and writing. Even those were restricted to the basics for all but wealthy women.

Consistency in names was also rare, because apart from privileged and educated individuals, most people struggled to write and often attempted phonetic versions of words. Names were thus phonetic approximations and Australian records of Chinese names exemplify this. One case of a family who appeared to be Irish because their name began with O was actually Chinese after scrutiny of registry office records.

The transcription of old information also led to inconsistency as errors crept in, for example:

  • deterioration of old records which became difficult to read
  • later generations unable to decipher the writing style, and
  • the rushing through transcription which requires patience and attention to detail.

Some passenger manifests are inaccurate. The above situations are compounded by the fact that passenger lists may have been drawn up out of doors. The records were therefore exposed more often to water, sun, salt and other pollutants resulting in poor quality original documents. Sometimes the information may have been given verbally, and so become corrupted by external sounds in the environment, as the semi-literate recorder of the name struggled to capture it in pencil or ink.

It is hard to accept this situation from the viewpoint of modern society where all names are cross-checked and managed in an electronic form. However, it is important to take this situation into account because the expectation that a name was always consistently recorded is one of the basic pitfalls in genealogical research. It often means, however, that if you are persistent, you will find the person you want!

Story by: Rose Wilson

Back to e-xtra Winter 2015 stories

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