Guest blogger and Ancestry Canada Advisory Board Member: Janice Nickerson

I often urge family historians to go beyond names and dates, to learn about your ancestors’ lives in all their fascinating detail. But sometimes we have to get back to basics. What could be more basic than a name? Sadly, even our ancestors’ names can present us with a host of challenges that can arise for many reasons, including language, literacy, handwriting, multiple given names, nicknames and short forms.


If any of your ancestors spoke a different language than you do, or a different language than the people who created the written records about them, you are likely to encounter problems in interpreting and recording their names. The first thing you need to do is to familiarize yourself with the rules of pronunciation in the relevant languages.

This is how Sylvester Thibeault appears in the census of 1891. The census taker took the lazy way out and wrote “Tebo”. To add insult to injury the indexer typed “Lebo”.

I do most of my work in Canadian records, so I frequently encounter records dealing with Francophones (people who speak French). All is well when both the subject and the record keeper speak French, but when one or the other speaks English (or German, or Dutch…), the spelling of the names can become problematic.

The most extreme example I have encountered so far was a man whose surname was Thibeault. If you were to try to write this name phonetically for an English speaker, it would look something like Teebow. For this reason, I found the man’s name regularly recorded in English-speaking regions as Tebo and Tibo and Tibow. That wasn’t too much of a stretch, but if I’d been only looking for names starting with Th, I’d have missed them. And if I’d been using an electronic database, I’d have been sunk!

But it got worse! In one record, I found the name spelled Cheebaw. How did that happen? Well, if you pronounce the name out loud, you can start to get an inkling. What if the person answering the question was eating at the time and spoke with a mouthful of food, and the clerk was English, so didn’t know what French names should sound like or how they were written?

Sylvester Thibeault’s marriage record. Note the phonetic spelling “Cheebaw”.


These days we are very particular about how we spell our names, but in the past, say before 1900 or so, this was much less true. In fact, our ancestors sometimes themselves spelled their names differently on different documents, and even on occasion in different places in the same document! So, we must not be surprised when we find that our Harrington ancestors were recorded variously as Harrington, Harinton, Herrigdon and Arrington (this last version reflecting a regional dialect where the “H” is dropped). To spot these kinds of variations, it is frequently helpful to read the name out loud and imagine how it might be pronounced with mild accents and dialect differences.

Similarly, names that start with Mc or Mac should be treated interchangeably. There is no truth to the idea that one is properly Scottish and the other Irish, or any such thing. The opening syllable is also frequently written as ‘M’. Also, if you are searching an electronic database, watch for the possibility of the name being indexed just as Mac or Donald, especially if the original record seemed to have a space between the two syllables in the name.


Reading the handwriting of others requires patience and practice. This is true whether you’re reading your neighbour’s shopping list, or your ancestor’s will. It gets even more challenging the further back in time you go, as you encounter older styles of script.

However, there are several tricks you can employ when you come up against a name you can’t quite make out. First, try comparing the name you want with all the other names on the page. Are there any other instances of the same name? Or a similar name? Are the others any clearer? Next, try reading it up close (or with a magnifying glass), and from a distance. Also try placing a colored filter over the page (yellow or red seem to work well).

If you’re still stumped, start tackling it letter by letter. Compare the first letter with all the other capitalized words on the page. Can you find another word that starts with the same letter? Perhaps that word will be clearer, or more familiar. Then move on to the next letter. Be careful to separate the name you want from whatever is written above and below it, so that you don’t accidentally interpret the downward stroke of a Y or J as an upward stroke in the name you’re looking at.

Finally, if the record you’re looking at is available online, try sharing the image through genealogy social media pages, asking others to take a look and give you their interpretations. Sometimes all you need is another fresh eye!

Multiple Given Names

Most of us have first names and middle names and we use our first name most of the time. However, some of us actually go by our middle names. Our ancestors did this too, and sometimes, they even used them interchangeably! So, when you think you’ve found the right family in the census, but a couple of the children seem to have the “wrong” names, don’t rule them out. If you can find enough examples of the family’s records, you may find one that provides both initials, or even the full names (baptismal records often provide all the given names), which can help you match “Mary B” with “M. Beatrice”.

Nicknames and Diminutives

Sometimes we look at old photographs and documents and imagine that our ancestors must have been very stiff, formal people. Life was serious for them; they wouldn’t have joked around and been silly like we do. But this is just a trick of our imaginations. Our ancestors were human too. While your ancestor’s given name as it appears on his baptism record might have been Hezekiah, with family and friends (and thus on records they created), he might have been called Zeke, or Hez or even Red (if he had red hair, perhaps?).

Obviously, we can’t predict all of the possible names our ancestors might have been known by, but we can keep an open mind and try not to jump to conclusions too quickly. We can also try to learn some of the more common diminutives for common names. For example, most of us would recognize Liz as a diminutive of Elizabeth, but did you know that Elizabeths were also called Beth, Bess, Bessie, and Betty?

Short Forms

Some names were so common, and thus written so often, that scribes developed written short forms for them to speed up recording. These often involve the use of superscript letters. These include Wm for William, Elizth for Elizabeth, Archd for Archibald and Jno for John (this last one is odd, I agree, but very common). The trickiest are Jas and Jos. The first is James; the second Joseph. They look very similar, so be careful!

A Final Note of Caution

When you are taking notes from old documents, always make clear what exactly you saw in the record. Try not to introduce your own short forms and interpretations without explicitly noting them as such. If the original record said “Jas M’Donald,” you might want to write it exactly that way in your notes and add your own interpretation in square brackets [James MacDonald]. That way, if you later have cause to doubt your interpretation, you’ll know what to look for and won’t waste valuable time.


Janice Nickerson

Janice Nickerson is a professional genealogist with over 30 years of research experience. Her expertise includes Upper Canadian history, criminal justice records, fur trade history, turning bare bones genealogies into full-fledged family histories, and finding fun ways to share family history finds. In addition to helping her private clients discover the richness of their ancestral heritage, Janice does searches for provincial Public Trustees, writes and lectures on a variety of genealogical topics.

Janice is a proud 8th-generation Canadian, with English, German, Irish, Welsh and Aboriginal heritage.


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