Every genealogist has to deal with variations in first and last names, but my ancestor Anna Moernaij is surely the queen of name variations. She tops the list with fifteen (15!) versions of her family name. One-and-the-same person. You would be overwhelmed by less.
When asked about kinship, you sometimes hear an answer like this, “No, we’re not related. Our names do look alike, but with me, it’s with ‘De Smet’ with a ‘t’ and with her, it’s with ‘dt’, ‘Desmedt’ that is.” Or “With me, it’s ‘Vandevelde’ in one word and with him in three words, ‘Van de Velde’…” By the way, these common names have even more variations than these mentioned. Different spelling, so not related? That’s not so sure yet.
Help, name variations!
Anyone who has already delved into family history quickly discovers that the same ancestor seems to have several versions of his family name. In the same deed, you can sometimes find two or more versions of the surname (and first name). This saw the registrar note the family name “Dreessen” in the margin, write “Driessen” in the actual deed, and sign the person’s name with “Dreissen. Well.
Spelling, form and sound variations.
Surnames vary not only in spelling but also in form. ‘Van Moorenhaut’ versus ‘Van Moorenhout’, but also ‘Moerenhoudt’ versus ‘Van Moerenhoudt’. In terms of sound, for example, you have “Deknut” and “Dekneut.
How does this come about?
You can sometimes explain such situations by the illiteracy of the persons mentioned. The deed was often not signed or only signed by a cross. A misspelling was simply not noticed, and people were in no position to pass on the correct spelling. Until the early 20th century, many people were uneducated. In Belgium, compulsory education was introduced in 1914; in the Netherlands in 1901.
Moreover, people had such respect for the official representing the government that they did not dare to protest when they did notice a misspelling.
Finally, the person involved often did not care himself how his name was included in the deed. It was clear enough.
Among deeds from parish registers, the genealogical sources before 1796, the name variations of “same name” are much more numerous. The pastor on duty did not feel compelled to consistently adhere to the same spelling or form of the family name. Nor to handle fluently legible handwriting. We therefore need not revile the pastor.
The spelling of Belgian surnames was established by the French in 1795. Beginning in 1796, citizens were required to report births and deaths to the civil registry and marry at the town or city hall. Previously, there were many regional differences and even variations within the same parish. In the Netherlands, a little later, starting in 1811, people were required to register a permanent family name.
Fixed spelling rules Dutch language
The greatest explanation of name variations lies beyond the casualness of the sexton or pastor. Before the 19th century, there were simply no general spelling rules in Dutch. Only from 1804 did the first general spelling apply in the Netherlands: the so-called Spelling Siegenbeek. When spelling surnames, people in the Netherlands followed Siegenbeek’s new spelling rules, making Dutch surnames closer to the current spelling.
In the Southern Netherlands, there were protests against this and people did not much like the “meddlesome, Protestant, Dutch” spelling rules. This following was considered loyal to the regime of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. In Flanders, the spelling situation remained as chaotic and inconsistent as ever. For example, one used “ae” one time and “a” the next. One time “ui,” another time “uy,” and so on. The first general spelling in Belgium was adopted not until 1841 : this became the Willems spelling. From then on, this spelling was generally followed, including in the spelling of surnames. Name variations were restricted.
Whew, says the genealogist. Or not?
Name variations not yet completely ruled out
No immediate compliance when fixed spelling of surnames is maintained
Even after 1796, name variations continued to arise. For example, my ancestor Ursula Apolonia Deknudt (b. 9/2/1823) has sisters named“Deknuedt” and“De Cnudt. Different surnames within the same family. Yet those variations gradually went out and people stuck to the same family name through the generations.
If you have family roots from countries with a different script (Cyrillic, Arabic, etc.) then the family name was transcribed when registering in Belgium. However, there are different transcription rules by country, so children born to the same family but born in different countries sometimes still have different surnames. But then that’s another story.
Now what about those name variations in the family tree?
1/ To choose or not to choose
When you begin genealogical research, the many name variations can throw you off. “Now, what is it?” you think. You can choose to pick the most common version, or include all variants in your family tree. Personally, I choose to take the first and last name from the birth or baptismal certificate as the preferred name and include all variants of these names in the person record.
With“the queen of name variations”, Anna Moernaij goes like this. In her baptismal certificate we find the surname: Anna Moernaij. That’s also how you find them in my family tree. All other versions I encounter in subsequent deeds (her marriage and burial certificates, the baptismal records of her children) I note as name variations. You can also see this in her person sheet. This is how I found these fifteen variants:
- Anna Moernaij
- Anna Moerenaye
- Anna Moereney
- Anne Moerenhaege
- Anna Moerenhoudt
- Anne Moernhaut
- Anna Mooerenay
- Anna Mooerennaye
- Anna Mooeronnay
- Anne Moorenhaut
- Anna Morenhaudt
- Anna Mooerennaye
- Anne Van Moorenhaut
- Anna Van Mooreneije
- Anne Van Moorenhout
2/ Broad view in research
Once you know that name variations are possible, it is important to look for other spellings as well. When looking up the names of your ancestors in indexes, it is best to look for variants. Often these are close together (“Moernaij” and “Moereney,” for example), but sometimes not at all. Think “Morenhout” and “Van Moorenhout”.
If you miss a name variation, you can miss a whole family.
With the ‘Deknudt’ family, discovered that I also had to look out for the name variations ‘Decnut’, ‘De Cnudt’, ‘Dekneut’, ‘Deknud’, ‘Deknuedt’, ‘Deknut’, ‘Keneut’, ‘Knut’ and eventually even ‘Queneut’!
So a broad view is needed.
3 / Double check
If you suspect this, check that it is indeed the same person. You can do this using the parents’ names, a birth, marriage or death date.
The baptismal record of Anna Moernaij, Feb. 9, 1642.
The marriage certificate of Hendricus Vandevelde and Anna Moerenaye, July 13, 1664.
The burial record of Anna Van Mooreneije, June 18, 1712.
- State Archives in Belgium
- All about surnames, Familienaam.be (© Ann Marynissen)
- History of Dutch spelling, Wikipedia