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Variations in Surname Spellings

Historically, the spelling of many surnames varied for one reason or another. In fact, it is probably true that any genealogist will find one, or many, spelling variations to surnames in their family’s history. This can be very confusing, even to the most experienced genealogist. Knowing that surname spellings often changed over time, and understanding the reasons why, can be of great help to you in your genealogical efforts.

Sounding American

It was quite common that people changed their names when they came to America. Sometimes this change was simply to shorten the name, but typically it was to Anglicize the name. For example, Madsen might be changed to Madison, or Bakker to Baker. It is also possible that the spelling of names changed based on how the name was pronounced. For example, the French name Beland was pronounced as Bae-law, and so it may be spelled like Balaw, Bailaw, Baylaw, or even Bailey in America.


Until the printing of Webster’s Dictionary, proper spelling was not important in American history. In fact, many Americans did not know how to spell, or did so very poorly. For this reason, people often recorded names wrong. Genealogists should consider how surnames could be spelled based on the way it is pronounced when researching records.


Patronymics are names that are based on components of a male ancestors (father, grandfather, etc.) name. Patronymic naming trends vary depending on which part of the world you are in. Some examples: William’s son would be named “Wilson”, or the grandson of Conchobar (Irish version of the name Connor) may be named O’Connor. These naming traditions are no longer used in most cultures.


Surnames were sometimes given to person depending on his occupation. For example, a metal worker may be given the surname, Smith, or a doorkeeper may be known by the surname, Usher.

Whimsical Quirks

Much like occupational surnames, some surnames were given based upon something that was happening at the time. One example of this comes from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) who gave a Vietnamese man the surname, Bonus, because he purchased “bonus packs” of chewing gum. Other surnames may have been given based on a popular celebrity, a type of food, or a street name.


Women often change their surnames when they become married. However, this is not always the case, especially in the cases of notable women. For genealogical purposes, women should be recorded by their maiden names (their name prior to marriage).