A Note on the Spelling of Names

While reading many old documents one fact that never fails to amaze is the originality and diversity of spelling by the scribes of the past. Standards of spelling in general, and surnames in particular, just did not appear to exist and many names are blessed with a plethora of different spelling forms. Why does this happen? Why are so many spelling variations found?

Essentially, today we are all relatively well educated and cannot comprehend a time when illiteracy was the norm. We therefore expect spelling forms of the past to be as consistent as they tend to be today. However, until mass illiteracy was tackled there was little or no requirement for a uniform spelling system in the English language even among the literate. Indeed, even Shakespeare spelt his own name four different ways. The first real attempts to introduce a standard English spelling system were made by the Board Schools in the 1870's. Before this time spelling appears to our modern eyes to be more cavalier than 'accurate'. However since there was no standard system for spelling at that time, the question of accuracy didn't arise! They also had to contend with the vagaries of the spoken word in local dialect and consequently had a great tendency to spell phonetically.

To illustrate this point in her book 'Further Steps in Family History' Eve McLaughlin selects the name Osbom as an example :-

"May 6 baptised John Osborn sun to John Osbourne
May 8 buried the said John Usband sonne to Husband the Miller.

Usbome, Hosbome, Asburn are other standard variants of that name..."


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