Why being too precious about names may be limiting your research.

Why being too precious about names may be limiting your research

“I get it, no really I do, I completely understand where you’re coming from, but here’s the thing…”. This sentence, or words to this effect, I’ve uttered as an opening gambit far too often when helping people tracing their ancestors.

As someone “blessed” with a somewhat unusual spelling variant of my surname, Peirce rather than the more numerous Pierce, I’ve been that soldier. Stood at a counter or reception desk;

“What’s the name?”


“I’m sorry sir, we don’t have anything under that name”

“How are you spelling it?”


“Sorry to interrupt, maybe try P-E-I-R-C-E”

“Ah yes, there it is, please follow me”


I’m not overly precious about the spelling of my surname (well okay, maybe just a little), but in modern times it takes on greater importance to be consistent with spelling particularly when dealing with government offices or especially when booking airline tickets. Modern security and data systems often rely on information being consistent, including spelling of names.

This leads me to this point of this week’s tip, while it is perfectly understandable why people are proud (precious) about the way “we spell it”, the reality is that your ancestors probably weren’t, or were but had no say in the matter!

Although my ancestors were relatively consistent when it comes to spelling from the 20th century onwards, if I hadn’t embraced earlier generations of Pierces / Piers / Pearces / Pearses, I would have a much smaller family tree.

Often when people search for their ancestors they stick rigidly to “their” spelling of a surname. Sometimes they will, incorrectly, dismiss a record based on the spelling of the name, or limit searches to ‘exact matches’. This is a mistake, as it can often lead to relevant information being missed.

Here’s a few points to remember in relation name variants;


  1. Before the middle of the 20th century literacy rates, particularly in rural areas, were low. Therefore, even if they could write, your ancestors may not have spelled their name “correctly”.

  2. This leads nicely onto the second point, which is that the ‘standardising’ of surname spelling, is really a 20th century phenomenon, linked to the improvement in literacy rates and more frequent documentation of people. Whether you’re a Reilly or a Riley may just depend on which stuck from a given ancestor coming forward.

  3. Oftentimes the information recorded in the records was not recorded by your ancestors, even if your ancestor could spell and was consistent in how they spelled their name, if they were giving information orally to a registrar, immigration official, journalist, etc. their entry details would be dictated by that person’s interpretation of their name, spelling it how they believed to be correct.

  4. This doesn’t just apply to surnames, for example Matthew can be one ‘t’ or two, or even the more Franco; Mathieu.


By Stephen Peirce 

Stephen Peirce 

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