Five Minute Skill Building

A recent article in the Reader’s Digest indicated that some students graduating from college are unable to read letters, journals, or other papers written by their own parents because they were never taught how to write cursive after the third grade.  They are going to have a difficult time reading any original historical documents prior to 1900.  How about you?  Have you been taught these important essential paleography skills?

Were you taught about common given name abbreviations such as those below when you were in grade school?  Most of these are super-scripted samples where the first letter or so was written then the last letter in the word was written above the line (like a footnote entry if typed).   Finally see if you can recognize the words written in script on the left.  Sample given names

  • James = Ja[me]s.
  • Thomas = Tho[ma]s.
  • William = W[illia]m.
  • John = J[oh]n.
  • Nathaniel = Nath[anie]l.
  • Christopher = X[Christo]pher.
  • Henry = Hy.
  • George = Geo.
  • Joseph = Jos.
  • Robert = Robt.
  • Charles = Chas.
  • Alexander = Alexr.
  • Jonathan = Jno.

See above, which letters have been left out by noting the letters in bracket.  Then see if you can fill in the missing letters on those given names with no brackets.

How do you explain to others that names are often spelled different ways? Spelling was generally okay, but if the writer didn’t know how to spell a name, he would write it phonetically (the way he heard it spoken).  Names weren’t too different then as they are now.  If it looks like “Harreol” it’s possibly “Harriet”.  Some names can be confused for each other depending on the handwriting of the record-keeper, such as David and Daniel, Samuel and Lemuel, or the abbreviations Jas. [James] and Jos. [Joseph or Josiah].

Some names had various alternate, accepted spellings, such as Ester, Esther, Easter, and Hester.  They were called name variants.  This is true as well with Mary and Polly, Sarah and Sally, Fate and Lafayette.

“Mc” names could be written several different ways as well and yet all mean the same surname or family: McLaughlin, MLaughlin, M’Laughlin

Writers in the 1800s and earlier used a crook s if a word had a double s (on the first s).  The crook s (named because it looks like a shepherd’s crook or staff) often looks like “fs” or “p” to a modern reader.  The name Jesse would therefore be erroneously transcribed as Jefse or Jepe.  Bass could look like Bafs or Bap.

Were you warned about abbreviations in old documents.  For example, Do or a symbol  indicated a ditto, meaning to use the same word above the line such as this paragraph from a probate estate:

1 note on James Smith [transcribed it means 1 note on James Smith]
1 Do on Phillip Brown [means 1 note on Phillip Brown]
1 Do on Do Smith [means 1 note on Phillip Smith]
NOTE: The word “note” means either a receipt or an invoice that looks like a small piece of paper called an “IOU” that was as good as a check.

If the above seems incredible to you, consider this item compliments of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1987:

Willard M. Wallace, in his Sir Walter Raleigh (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 319-320, counted more than seventy contemporary spellings of the courtier’s name: Raleigh, Ralegh, Rawley, Raweley, Raulie, Rawlegh, Rawleigh, Rawleighe, Raleghe, Rawlye, Rawleie, Rawligh, Raileigh, Raughlie, Rauleigh, Raleighe, Raylie, Raghley, Raghlie, Rawleygh, Rawleyghe, Rawely, Rauly, Raughley, Raughly, Raylye, Rolye, Rolle, Raughleigh, Raleikk, Rale, Real, Reali, Ralego, Rahlegh, Raley, Raleye, Raleagh, Raleygh, Raleyghe, Ralli, Raughleye, Rauleghe, Raulghe, Raweleigh, Raylygh, Reigley, Rhaleigh, Rhaly, Wrawly, Wrawley, Raleighch, Ralo, Ralle, Halley, Raulaeus, and Raleghus.  The Spanish often used his first name–Gualtero, Guatteral, or Gualteral.  To King James he was Raleigh and Raulie; to Henry Howard, Ralegh and Rawlie; to Cecil, Raleigh, Relaegh and Rawley, and to his wife he was usually Ralegh but on at least one occasion Raleigh.  Sir Walter himself used three spellings in a single deed dated 1578–Rawleyghe, Rawlygh, and Ralegh.  In later life he preferred Ralegh.

The next time someone tells you they are only searching for the “real” spelling of their surname, you can share the above story.  If they won’t listen, time has a way of forcing the issue when they can no longer go back in time because the name has stumped them.

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