Is There One Universal Spelling for a Last Name?

In a word: no.

Many last names get spelled in a variety of ways by clerks, priests, newspaper reporters, and others. Sometimes the variant spellings are because the person who has the last name does not know how to spell it or has no preference for how it is spelled. Even when the holder of the name has a preferred spelling, the clerk may spell the name incorrectly (which is sometimes referred to as a “Scrivener’s error”). Some names are even spelled in a variety of ways by the person who actually has the name and who chooses to spell it differently in different records.

There’s a Latin phrase that addresses this concern over variant spellings: Idem sonans.  Taking a somewhat simplified view, if the other spelling sounds the same, then it is reference to the same person. James Rampley cannot avoid a loan he signed where his name was written as James Ramply instead of James Rampley. The two spellings sound alike. He probably also could not avoid a debt where his name is styled as Jim Ramply.

When searching records, it’s not about how the name is spelled as much as it is how the name sounds. That’s why it is important to know how your ancestor probably said his name. That’s why when searching for my John Michael Trautvetter, I need to search for Troutfetter, Trautfetter, and Troutvetter which all pretty much sound the same. I also need to search for Troutfelter, Trautfelter, Trantvetter, etc.

I transcribe each record as it is written. I do not modify spellings of names on documents when transcribing them.

I may choose to standardize the spelling of a last name of an ancestor when writing about that person. My ancestor Augusta Newman is referred in a variety of ways in various documents. When I am discussing him in any research report or summary, I use the name Augusta Newman. I don’t refer to him as August Neuman in one sentence, Agusta Newmann in another sentence, Guste Neumann in another, etc. That’s simply too confusing.

In reporting standardize the name. Generally have a reason for the name choice other than “it is is the one I like.”



One thought on “Is There One Universal Spelling for a Last Name?

  1. When I first began researching my tree I could not locate one family in a census record that seemed like it might hold information that was blocking me, finally I did. The census taker must have asked – who lives here? and perhaps the respondent said the Smiths and that’s how it was written… Took Forever to sift that out! Many of my family names switched around the ie to ei – just adds to the fun! 🙂 Thanks for reminding us that the spelling variant button doesn’t always list all the possibilities…

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