Name Derivation is a term associated with the origin and transformation of names over a period of time. For our purposes, we are primarily interested in the origin and transformation of last names, (surnames or family names).
Most last name derivations are due to cultural influences and accepted naming practices and conventions. There are other reasons that a family’s last name may have changed over time as well. Some of these may be due to misspellings or name simplifications when moving to a new country.
The impact of name derivations on family history research should be somewhat apparent. The most obvious impact is that a family historian may not be able to find a specific family if that family’s name has been changed or spelled differently than thought.
Earlier we looked at how the Jones family name originated and how it was to eventually become a last name for many families (see our article titled Jones Patronymics).
There are many other reasons for last name derivations as well. The following is a list of some of the primary influences that could result in a change to a family’s last name. These include:
- Document Translation Errors – Changes due to a name which was incorrectly translated when transferred to another format. An example of this would be an incorrect translation from a hard-to-read handwritten census record to an online database system. Many times these translations are done by hand and are prone to human error. There can also be translation issues with today’s automated optical scanning systems.
- Compiled Content Mistakes – Compiled content is content (biographies, obituaries, newspaper articles, etc.) where the information was gathered from the original records (birth, marriage, census records, etc.). The issue with compiled content is that it is more likely to contain mistakes and typos because it has not been double checked by the original person or family before it went to press.
- Illiteracy (Lack of reading or writing skills) – An example of this is where an immigrant, who is not able to read or write, who would then review and approve an incorrectly spelled name without realizing it. This might occur from information that an immigration clerk has recorded incorrectly when filling out an immigration document. This misspelled information would then become the permanent information recorded in that immigration record.
- Name spelling simplification – A last name spelling that has been altered from the original to a spelling that is easier to understand or interpret in a new country. For example, a classic simplification for Jones is one where the original family name started out as “Johnes” or “Johns” in the UK.
- Cultural/Language Influences – Occurs when a newly arrived immigrant decides to change their name in order to fit in with their new culture. Other influences include changes in laws (Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542 in Britain, etc).
- Name Changes due to Pronunciation – Commonly an issue with individuals with a heavy foreign accent where a name would be recorded incorrectly as interpreted by a clerk or registrar. There were very rare instances of this occurring for immigrants first arriving at ports of entry like Ellis Island.
- Acquired Last Names – There are many reasons why someone would acquire a last name. One of the most common ways would be in situations where a person did not have a last name to begin with. This has happened a lot with the surname of Jones.
Obviously, as a family historian, it’s important to keep these possibilities in mind when you are trying to locate a specific person or family, but yet you find yourself hitting a roadblock or dead-end with your name searches.
The importance of “name derivation” is greater today because of the existence of readily accessible sources of information. For example, we can now search records via the internet or other electronic systems. Misspellings, typos and incorrect record translations are especially prominent due to the need to transfer of hand recorded information (original census record, birth certificates, etc..) into electronic media.
A good approach for circumventing record translation issues is to try to locate an image of the original record. You should also try to verify one source of information with another source of information, especially by comparing different record types.