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.

21    Mar 20072 comments

Names: An Introduction


Genealogists and family historians are nothing without names. Names are what we need. Without an all-important name, we cannot go back in time.

Newcomers might think that their family's current name has remained unchanged since surnames were adopted. That simply isn't the case and names have continually evolved for many reasons. Perhaps the most elemental is that spelling just wasn't as important back in the far past when most people were illiterate.

Surnames and their spellings been affected by ethnic naming practices and patterns, social class and immigration. Your name may be a simple variation, an Americanized or Anglicized version, or one that has been "invented," with no relation whatsoever to the original.

While some names have been traced for hundreds of years in a general geographic region, other quests require major sleuthing skills, along with detailed knowledge of specialized ethnic, social, cultural, religious and historical events.

There are many reasons why we can't find the names we know must be there … somewhere. The main reasons why these continue their game of hide and seek are due to misspelling, translations between languages, names not spelled as pronounced, changed (but not at Ellis Island - a major urban myth), etc.

This multi-part series of postings will address common problems and how to get around the obstacles.


For most of civilization, surnames were simply not necessary.

China claims the first use of surnames in 2852 BC. In the 11th century, European surnames are recorded. As an example, Spanish Jews first began to use surnames in the 1100s, and in the 9th century in some cases, according to archival and notarial records. In most of Europe, however, Jews were not required to adopt surnames until the early 19th century.

As long as the world's population remained small and localized in villages, it was enough to know that in the village of Smalltown, David was the shoemaker, Simon the baker, Thomas the barrel-maker (cooper) and John the blacksmith. Since there was only one resident following each occupation, the townspeople required only the artisan's first name (given name). Everyone knew each man personally and where his business was located.

When the village began to grow, or villagers moved to larger towns or into cities, there may have appeared several shoemakers named David, bakers named Simon, coopers named Thomas, and smiths named John.

A single name wasn't sufficient. David decided to adopt his craft as his name: David Shoemaker. Simon found there were already several bakers with his name, so he decided to use his father's name as his surname - Simon Johnson (John's son). Thomas also took his craft as a name: Thomas Cooper, and the blacksmith became John Smith.

In the Middle Ages, family names are generally in four categories:

1. Patronymics are family names formed from a father's name ("son," son of) - a common device. Less common except in Scandinavia and Iceland are matryonymics formed from a mother's name ("dottir," daughter of). In the British Isles, some commonly used prefixes or suffixes are Mac (Gaelic), Fitz (Norman), O (Irish) and ap (Welsh).

2. Location, location, location: People were also identified by geographical features such as a river, forest, valley or a major building like a CHURCH or CASTLE. If a man lived in the western part of the forest, he may have been called WESTWOOD or FOREST. People also used their town of origin after moving to a larger population center, so those individuals we described above might just as easily have taken the name SMALLTOWN. This would be helpful when former neighbors visited and tried to locate the family.

3. Some omnastics (the study of names) scholars believe 10% of all names are based on physical characteristics or personality. Origins may be in medieval nicknames for body shape (tall and thin), hair (or not), beards, deformities (one eye, lame), hair color (red) or even character. A strong man might have been called ARMSTRONG, a short person was called SMALL.

4. Occupational names come from crafts or trades. MILLER ground flour, TAILOR made clothing. COOPER made barrels. In other countries, look for translations of such occupations: TAILOR is KHAYAT (Farsi) or SHNEIDER (Yiddish). MELNIK is miller (Russian).

Over the centuries, spelling and pronunciation changed, presenting contemporary genealogists with real challenges.

Different branches of a family may carry different names. Many contemporary English and American surnames have numerous variants. When researching a surname, remember to work back through the generations to determine the original name.

The next posting in this series will focus on names following immigration, the impact of accents on names and search techniques. Future postings will investigate naming patterns, origins, meanings and will provide links for additional research.

Readers are invited to post any questions or comments about names in general or specific names. I look forward to reading your comments.

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