House that? August 2010

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House that? August 2010

Post by mardler »

A very apt title this month. Despite my having spent two weeks yacht racing, thanks to my cousin, Ian, who produced a file with nigh on 900 people in it shortly before month end, we have added almost 1,500 people this month and now stand within a whisker of 27,800 people in our database. Because Ian was studying areas of the West of England, a considerable number of these additions were of people named House, which is now reaching respectable proportions in our database even if it remains under-represented relative to the other spellings.

Multiple surnames
Indeed, what is surprising about the most recent additions is that most Howes/Howse/Hows/House people we are adding now seem to have multiple surnames! What I mean is that these individuals frequently spell their names (or had their names spelled, more accurately) differently at different times. Remember that for the moment we mostly collecting data on the UK in the late 19th century. So what we are seeing is the gradual coalescence of surnames around the most common local spelling of name leading to the distributions we can see here:

We now have at an estimate, well over 100 people who spelled their name Howes, Howse and House during the course of their life. We've yet to find one with all four, though we have found a Cornish family named Howes who have also spelled their name Howis and Hawse at different times!

Digital mapping of an analog universe
We are all used to the concept of a surname. We each have one and we know what it is, but our forebears frequently didn't. These instances where someone has differently spellings of their surname at different times present us with a challenge. Modern family history programs allow for the input of multiple surnames for an individual, but the subtlety is that there must be one main name, which determines how an individual is sorted into alphabetical order by the program and also determines how you look up that person.

So, how do we cope with people who have multiple surnames/spellings over time? How do we determine whether to call them Howes/Howse/Hows or House? I wish there were a clear answer. We of course look at how the person's name was recorded in official documents at the time, but we also look at the evolution of the family name from the person's parents to their children and pick the name that is most in harmony with the rest. So that one person can easily lead to others in thier family group.

Why explain this? Well, it will happen that some family historians will find an ancestor named Howse in a census and hence look in our database for that person under that name but not find them. It could be, however, that the person is listed as Howes or House, because of how their name was recorded elsewhere. So they are there but not necessarily easily found.

I wish there were an easy solution to this problem, but I cannot find one. When we finish compiling lists of births marriages and deaths, these will all be combined across multiple spellings but for family groups there seems no escape. If you think we've made a bad judgement call anywhere, or you have the solution for us, do speak up!

Thanks for your continued support. Best regards for what remains of our (Northern Hemisphere) summer!
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