Be A Bad Speller… PLEASE!

PicturePhoto courtesy of Wikipedia

When thinking of a title for this article, I harkened back to my youth, when there was a famous British-born Jewish comedian, Henny Youngman. He was a master of “one-liners” and was very funny. He showed up on many TV variety shows.

Probably his most famous line was “Take my wife………..please!” This was where he was trying to suck you into thinking that he was using his wife as an example, hence “Take my wife” (and the unstated “for example”).  And then a long pause and the irresistible “Please” where he wanted the listener to take her away.

At any rate, what the heck does this have to do with genealogy and family history research?

Lots and lots.

If you do online research for information and records about your ancestors and other family tree inhabitants, you are always faced with a search box – where you enter in many cases someone’s name.

And therein lies the problem. Because people either didn’t spell correctly or when indexing didn’t enter the information correctly.

So if you are searching, you are always batting:

  • Census takers with lousy handwriting
  • People who didn’t spell their name the same way every time they were asked.  (I have some great grandparents who did this all the time).  I have some ancestors who used so many variations that I still don’t know the “proper” spelling of their surname
  • Indexers who wrote down a misspelled name in a log or journal
  • Indexers for online indexes and other record databases who type the names improperly and the mistake is not caught
  • Newspapers that often misspelled surnames
  • For newspaper indexes, lousy source quality, or scanning and OCR errors

As an example, one of my family tree surnames is spelled “Braunhart”.  I have found it in census records, indexes, and newspapers spelled “Brownhart”, “Braunhard”, “Braunhar”, “Braunhardt”, etc.

Now and FamilySearch as two examples, will include as an option, variations on the spelling that you entered in  the search criteria box and present many more “candidate” search results.

However, I do not rely on that. I prefer to INTENTIONALLY misspell these names myself, with a bunch of different variations.  And THAT has been very successful for me – especially with newspaper research. Many ancestor records and newspaper articles have been found as a result of this.

So the moral of this story is:

Be a bad speller… Please!  You will be glad that you did.


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  1. Thanks for the reminder that we should search for those mis-spellings ourselves! I think search engines have gotten better & I’ve started relying on them. But, I really should be doing the work myself & making sure I’m not missing something!

  2. When I can’t find someone that I KNOW should be there, I think of all the possible misspellings AND misreadings. Will that “m” be read as “w” or “ur” maybe?

    1. Excellent point Wendy. There are a bunch of letter combinations that can be used as alternatives.

  3. I totally agreed my ukrainian great grandparents real surname is still not known and they even were considered french at some point. I find this to with first names I’d had john be jno or william be wm.

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