An incident in the Genealogy Centre caused me to reflect on the importance of spelling in searching genealogical records.

A patron was researching his family in the Centre, but having trouble finding some of his ancestors.  What soon became evident was that he was unaware of the tendency of the clerks in the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages to abbreviate names, especially personal names.  Thus, “William” becomes “Wm”; “Henry” becomes “Hy”; “Thomas” becomes “Thos”; and, most confusing of all, “John” becomes “Jno”.  Once apprised of this information, illumination was rapidly followed by dismay at the number of records that he must have missed due to his lack of awareness of this habit.

The moral of the story is that “less is often more”.  When performing a search in any computerised database, check to see if there is a wildcard symbol, frequently *, $ or ?, which can be used to truncate searches, or replace unknown letters.  An example is to enter “Smith, H*”, where the search will retrieve all Smiths with a given name beginning with “H”, which can then be further refined once the field is seen.  Equally, “Sm*th” will retrieve not only Smith but also Smyth, Smeath and Smeeth.  If you restrict your search to “Smith, Henry” you may miss out on “Smith, Hy”, “Smith, Harry” and “Smith, Henri”.

Also remember that records themselves can have all manner of errors and inconsistencies.  Informants may be illiterate and unable to check what is recorded, clerks may not hear names correctly due to accents, or they may spell them inaccurately due to haste, carelessness or ignorance.  Names starting with “Mac” and “Mc” are frequently recorded inconsistently, and further variations can include names such as “McGuire”, “MacGuire”, McQuire and “MacQuire”, for example.

Foreign names offer clerks almost unlimited opportunities to be creative.  In 1883 a family embarked on the ship ‘Procida’ under the name “Schneefuhs”, but disembarked as “Schnufuhs”!  In this category I would include Irish names, as in my own family where an ancestor is recorded variously as “Wareham”, “Wearham”, “Wharem” and “Whren”, clearly reflecting her Irish accent.

The final opportunity for confusion arises when old records are transferred to modern databases, either by hand or by machine.  Human transcribers still make errors in reading, copying and key-punching, and OCR devices are notorious for making transcription errors.  When searching, be persistent, creative and a bit cunning when entering search terms.  That elusive ancestor may be hiding behind nothing more substantial than a spelling mistake!


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