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Names Changing over Time

To anyone searching out their ancestral roots, it would be wonderful if the family name chosen ten centuries ago was exactly the same today. It would make life easier, but it is not reality.

Today, there are over a dozen ways to spell the most common of names, Smith. There are over three dozen ways to spell Burke. And there are nearly 4 dozen varying ways to spell Baer. And on, and on, and on...

So donít be amazed to find out the spelling of your name has changed. Rather you should be shocked if you find out your name never was changed.

There are basically four ways that names have changed over time. They are 1.) GOVERNMENTAL, 2.) ALPHABETICAL, 3.) SOCIAL and 4.) INTENTIONAL reasons.

Governments establish laws and regulations to keep names, records and information organized. Bureaucracies, trying to follow the laws and regulations have made the biggest impact on name changes. Who hasnít heard of changes made to names at Ellis Island. There, you may have had an Irish clerk, with who knows how much education, struggling to understand a German or Italian accent, spelling the familiesís name for future generations.

Families were given completely new names, because a clerk couldnít understand what was being said.

ALPHABETICAL differences caused major changes in name spellings. Russian, Polish, German alphabets for example are not the same as ours so different letters for different sounds were used. Without any consistency from day to day, or from clerk to clerk.

Education and penmanship have been other contributing factors. When written by hand, was the last letter in Capella and "a" or and "o"? Did our slightly educated forefathers always spell their names the same? No, not always. Records show that the famous Daniel Boone signed his own name B-o-n-e, B-o-o-n, as well as B-o-o-n-e.

SOCIAL pressures caused many families to change their name. There was the difficult situation of being a German during World Wars I and II. It was difficult to be on good terms with an employer as a German when their son was overseas being shot at by Germans. German and Japanese families endured great hardships by fellow citizens because of their ancestry during these times. The Germans however could hide their ancestry by changing the spelling to English sounding names. Daily, German families seeking the history of their family name, are surprised to discover that their name originated from England. No, they are not English, but rather, their name was changed to an English name.

And last there were INTENTIONAL reasons why family names were changed. Reasons I hear daily are, two brothers got mad at each other and one changed the spelling so they wouldnít be part of that family. A distant relative left his wife and family, and in order to not be found changed the name slightly. A letter was dropped because it was too confusing for others to say correctly. A letter was added because it added more class to the name. The name was shortened to make it easier to spell by others. And on, and on.

Ironically, whenever I mention this to people, almost always someone instantly recalls a story about a branch of the family who did just that.

So for whatever reason, Governmental, Alphabetical, Social or for Intentional reasons, family names have been through the gambit of changes. Donít be surprised if the origin or history of your family name included one or many changes to it.


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last updated on: April 3rd, 2017

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