22    Mar 20074 comments

Names: Why can’t I find my name?


Your family name has evolved since it was adopted. It may represent your family's sojourns in different countries, its spelling and pronunciation may have changed, and it may have been changed following a recent immigration.

Other factors, as mentioned in the previous article, are easy to understand. Spelling wasn't engraved in stone, people were illiterate or not literate in the common language of a specific area. Our ancestors didn't know how to spell their names and government officials were responsible for recording the names in registers or in important documents.

The official wrote the name the way he heard it. Perhaps the official was elderly and deaf in one ear, or your ancestor had a speech impediment or an accent. When your ancestor's cousin came in to record a later birth, however, a new younger official sat behind the desk, one whose hearing was excellent and the cousin spoke clearly.

When immigrants moved to a new country, they often changed their names. They wanted to make it easier for themselves, their neighbors and employers to spell or pronounce their names, and for official documents. If the original names were written in other alphabets - such as Cyrillic (Russian, Bulgarian etc.) - they were phonetically transliterated into English, providing many new spelling possibilities. Accents or dialects further complicated the choices.

When specific letters or combinations of letters in an original language could not be understood properly in a new language, the immigrant tried to simplify it, but variations can be traced to those with difficult-to-understand accents and imperfect knowledge of English, in the case of U.S. immigrants. Thus, a name was pronounced one way and recorded another way. In fact, a search of a family through utilizing city directories might show how the immigrant kept changing his or her name. My great-grandfather, whose original name was TALALAY, used TOLINE in his petition for citizenship (and it explained why it took me years to find it!), changed to TOLIN and finally to TOLLIN, while his brother adopted TALLIN.

Immigrants sometimes felt that if they translated their name, it would be simpler. It might have been as easy as simply translating the old name into the new language. In Israel, a family named Mandelbaum (almond tree) in Europe may have selected Shaked (almond in Hebrew). Some immigrants wanted a complete break from their former lives, or they may have been escaping from conscription in the old country and still afraid of officials who might come looking for them - this alone was enough reason to adopt a new name.

At some periods in certain countries, people of certain ethnicities were forced to adopt surnames imposed on them. When able, they'd drop the new names and return to the original or a "better" one in their subjective opinion. Others wanted to avoid persecution and, to hide their nationality or religion, adopted less-ethnic names. At certain times in Europe, for example, Jewish marriages were not recognized by the civil authorities (although couples had religious marriages). Thus registrars recorded the children's family name as the mother's maiden name. Upon immigration, the person began to use his father's name.


Searching for variations and permutations and eventually locating the original name takes time, sometimes lots of time. Here are some tips:

Don't just read the name silently, speak it and try to spell it phonetically. Ask others to speak the name. Try this experiment: ask a young child to write the name as you say it. Their phonetic interpretation may be helpful.

Try to translate the name back to its original language using an online translation site, like Babelfish or dictionaries. If possible, check surrounding countries or in the case of Eastern Europe and its changing borders, see what the name is in the various languages used in one geographical location.

Vowels and initial letters. Names beginning with H or a vowel need attention. Depending on the language, the H may be dropped or added, and a name that begins with one vowel may begin with any of them; A/O or I/E are the common vowel substitutes. Check all possible variations.

Be careful with Eastern European-origin names beginning with J - this could also be transliterated as I, E or Y; a final E, S or Z may have been dropped or added; there may be one or two Ns at the end or one or two Ms in the middle.

When working with indexes, human error may be the culprit. Transcribers suffer from eye strain, put their fingers on the wrong keys, even write in the wrong column. I've seen records where the field was "Marital Status" and the answer was "Russian" - an obvious error. A transcriber might transpose certain letters. Try to see the possibilities by writing down the name. Under it, write various transpositions of all the letters, including the first one. Other errors are easily understood by looking at your keyboard, where nearby letters are confused when fingers are placed on the wrong keys.

When thinking about alternative spellings, try prefixes, suffixes and different endings.

When you search online, always choose "sounds like" or "alternative spellings" or "Soundex" to increase the returns and possible success. When using MyHeritage's powerful search engine which searches 1,200+ genealogy databases with one click, you'll see many alternate names from which to choose.

Click to view photo in full size

Another remarkable program devised by Edward Rosenbaum and called Name Permutations, will list hundreds upon hundreds of name variants, categorized bythe number of changed letters, from 1 to 6 or more, including first letter variables. It provides variations that will not be picked up by other search engines. It is shareware and has a nominal cost.

If you are dealing with immigrants to America, however, please do not believe that your ancestor's name was changed at Ellis Island. Nearly every genealogy conference offers a lecturer addressing this great urban myth. No cases have been found where an immigrant's name was changed by an official at Ellis Island. The person may have adopted a new name the minute he or she walked out the door, but it wasn't changed by an official on Ellis Island.

Passenger manifests were prepared in Europe by staff who understood many languages, and these manifests were used to merely check off the passenger as he or she went through Ellis Island, and inspectors, often foreign-born themselves, were assisted by translators who spoke 60 languages and dialects.

In 1898, one of my family's first immigrants arrived, changed his name from TALALAY to TOLLIN, and wrote home about it. Those who followed also adopted the new name almost immediately. Another story told in many family branches was that the immigrant was told by a fellow traveler - who spoke some English - on the ship, that the new immigrant would have to change his name immediately as no one would give a job to Mr. Tell-a-lie. Every immigrant ancestor told this story to his and her children and grandchildren. We believe it happened to Mendel in 1898, he wrote home and everyone knew the story. Most TALALAY adopted TOLLIN or TALLIN, although there are some other variations.

The next posting will focus on international naming patterns.

Do you have a story about a name change in your family? Readers are invited to share stories, questions and comments. I look forward to reading your comments right here.

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Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I have been reading here for a while now and thought it would only be fair to register and contribute instead of being a silent reader. So – I am looking forward to be a full part of the community!

    Take care!

  2. I am looking at a photograph of a Peter Toline's grave stone(born 1887 died 1956)...next to him is my great Aunt...Margaret (pierce) Toline (born 1886 died in 1971) Camden NJ cemetary...

    I can not find any records in the US census or SS death records of any such Peter Toline! ;(

    Thanks for your information...perhaps I'll have to search alternate spellings...

  3. Cool site, love the info.
  4. I don't know If I said it already but ...Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I'm glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

    A definite great read..

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