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Hey Mac ... or it is Mc? Different spellings of surnames confuse search for ancestors.

Maybe your ancestors were different, but many of mine couldn't spell OK if you spotted them the O. The only version of their names they consistently recognized was a handwritten X. And who knows whether the vicar or part-time clerk could fathom their thick West Country brogues when recording names in the parish register or the census roll.

So when someone tells you, "Our people always spelled their name such-and such," the justifiable response is "hogwash."


Even the literate didn't pay much attention to the "correct" form of names in a less bureaucratic age. In his droll biography of Shakespeare, Bill Bryson remarks that each of the playwright's surviving signatures is spelled differently. (Bryson adds, "Curiously, one spelling he didn't use was the one now universally attached to his name.")

As just one example of the mutability of surnames, author and genealogist Michael O'Laughlin reports fourteen variations of MacAuley. I found another three in the Toronto phone book. O'Laughlin also explodes another cherished myth: "If the prefix is "Mc," they're Irish. If it's 'Mac,' they're Scottish." He concludes from the evidence, "there is no difference between Mac, Mc, and M'. You cannot say one form is Scottish and one is Irish."

Still, name changes arising from illiteracy, a disregard for spelling, or writing errors can often be detected if they're predictably phonetic. So if you're searching in archives, consider all the likely variants before you start. A good place to look for suggestions is the "Glossary of Surname Meanings and Origins" at Here you may find not only variations on your surname, but also links to websites, user forums, and mailing lists dealing with the name. (When doing your research, be sure to keep a record of the variants you've checked; a year from now you'll never remember.)

If you're lucky enough to be searching in indexed online records, most genealogy data companies provide the option of a "Soundex" search. To cite Wiktionary, a Soundex is a "phonetic algorithm for indexing names by their English pronunciation, based on the most probably significant consonants, so that a search for a misspelled name may find the desired one." As an example, I don't need to worry that Jones was recorded as Joanes, Johns,

Johnes, or Jons, all of which have the same Soundex code and will automatically come up in the search. (You must perform separate searches for variants with a different Soundex code. To check Soundex codes, use this handy online tool: http://www.

Much more difficult to discover are the significant name changes arising from assimilation into an English-speaking country, marriage or remarriage, illegitimacy, informal adoption, or a deliberate effort to conceal one's identity. Let's look at a few strategies for uncovering these.

Search for families of similar composition: A friend was curious about the origins of his grandfather John Mount of Winnipeg. It turned out that young John had led a Dickensian life. By early adulthood he had been enumerated in three censuses with as many different surnames. Born John White, he adopted his German-born stepfather's surname, Berg, when his mother remarried. Then, when Mr. Berg decided to anglicize his name, young John acquired his third and final surname (German "berg" = English "mount"). How was this case solved? In instances like this, the easiest way may be to ignore the surname altogether and see if you can find family groupings that are otherwise similar in composition, for example similar given names, gender, relative ages, relationships to one another, and any other information the database supplies, such as places of birth.

Search for siblings: Here's a common problem. You have no idea of your great-grandmother's maiden name. No documents or family stories have survived. Her death records are not much help and you can't find her marriage. In such dead-end cases with a single ancestor, always consider researching the siblings, in this case any sisters. Did they leave obituaries or wills that might give you invaluable information about their family origins generally, and their shared maiden name in particular?

Construct a timeline: A friend fretted for decades as to why her grandfather, Moses Levine, had maintained a lifelong silence about his "obviously Jewish" heritage. A fair question, until a timeline was prepared on every similar-looking name in all published U.S. and Canadian censuses between 1860 and 1930.

Everyone was accounted for throughout the period or ruled out on some point of fact except two people: the ancestor Moses Levine, who appeared seemingly out of nowhere on the prairies in the mid-1880s, and a fellow of French-Canadian parentage in upstate New York who disappeared from the documentary record in the early 1880s. Young Moise Lavigne was no more Jewish than the Pope. Subsequent research has strengthened the case that he became Moses Levine.

You'll need good luck, though, if you have ancestors who adopted entirely new names to make a break with their former lives. Still, there's one class of people who regularly do so and are exceedingly well documented: performers. How many of the following can you match with their stage names? Gladys Marie Smith. Monte Halparin. Michael A. Fox (yes, 'TV). David Henry Thomsett. Louis Weingarten.

Clearly they did not believe that a rose by any other name is as sweet. For the answers, go to O

Paul Jones, a former publisher, is a writer, consultant and avid genealogical researcher and volunteer.
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Title Annotation:ROOTS
Author:Jones, Paul
Publication:Canada's History
Date:Aug 1, 2010
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