Friday, 1 August 2008


Jeff Koertzen recently posted the following on the
Mailing List of Rootsweb, South Africa
It is published here with Jeff's permission.

In my research of Dutch names in particular, I've come across several circumstances in which other researchers warn of misspellings. There are several reasons why a name might be misspelled.

  • The individual may have changed the spelling for personal taste;
  • The individual may have changed the spelling for ease of use (difficult for others to spell);
  • Another individual/official may have officially changed the spelling for ease of use;
  • An official may have spelled the name as they heard it but, not requested the correct spelling;
  • An official may have spelled the name as they heard it, but the individual was illiterate and couldn't spell it and
  • An official may have copied the name incorrectly from another document.

There are a few other potential circumstances.

As an example of my own research and spelling variations, my distant cousins had told me to ignore the spelling of my own name as "Koertsen" instead of "Koertzen" as I know it, as they "obviously wouldn't be related." I have a copy of my great-great-grandfather's death certificate from the late 1800s, however, in which my great-great-grandmother signed her own name with the “s”.

Many of the surviving children were listed with their names as I spell it, but one daughter was listed also with the "s", all on the same document. What appears to me to be an "s", could merely be an incorrect reading, but in comparison to the others on the document it seems that it truly is an "s".

NAAIRS also has her name spelled as Koertsen in the archive search of that particular document, so I wouldn't be the only one to spell it "incorrectly" with the "s" if in fact it was an incorrect interpretation of the handwriting.

Also, keep in mind that surnames are relatively new. From my understanding, in the early 1800's, many people in Europe began using surnames due to a decree from Napoleon.

The same individual might have multiple surnames depending on their location, parentage, vocation, or some other descriptor and on who was recording the document. As examples, I will use English names, but you should be able to get the point:

  • John the Younger, resulting in John Young;
  • He might later be known as John son of William, resulting in John Williamson;
  • When he moves to another area, he could be known as John of Lockesly, resulting in John Lockesly;
  • There he works in the sawmill, resulting in John Sawyer and
  • If he later changes profession, he could become John Carpenter.
The point here being that names were rather fluid for a period of time.

Not only does it make our research more difficult, it can cast a large shadow of a doubt if assumptions are made without proof. With a huge illiteracy rate, even if the name itself is consistent, it might be spelled several different ways.

Although there's proof that surnames became more common and consistent in the mid- to the late-1800's, there can still be variations going into the early 1900's.

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