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Why Couldn’t My Ancestor Spell Their Name the Same?

You’re tracing your family back, and the spellings sometimes just go crazy. Centuries ago, often they had little schooling and did not know how to spell... but even people who wrote very well could be very free in how they spelled their name.

I’m not even talking about Americanizing their name (Schmidt to Smith, Klein to Clyne or Little), but one and the same person goes back and forth on how they spell their name. I’m just going to focus on German names; each language has its own spelling peculiarities.

Great-grampa Harschnek reliably spelled his name -nek, except when he’d occasionally go with -neck. Some of his cousins stuck with -nek, some made the spelling more German-looking and less Slavic with -neck; one went so far as to change it to Haarschnek ‘Hair-Snail’, which doesn’t even make sense, or at least I sure hope it doesn’t! But that’s a case where pressure to assimilate played a role.

When an educated ancestor wobbled on how they spelled their own name, sometimes it was to associate themselves with a particular language. When French was chic, Johann and Jakob might decide they were now Jean and Jacques; if they wanted to emphasize that they knew Latin, they might spell it Johannes and Iacobus- but in the pub with the boys, they might be Jaan or Köbli. People might use multiple variants of their name just walking down the street- there’s the baker? German. Ah, the judge and schoolmaster? Better put on the Latin! A noble just back from the royal French court? Anything but French would be declassé!

But even when people stayed in German, the names could legitimately vary. One of my ancestors spelled his name both Carl and Karl in the span of one sentence. The two spellings are pronounced the same, and people thought little of using any reasonable spelling. People with little schooling might use unreasonable spellings, we get that here in the U.S. as well.