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This page gives a good explanation of French-Canadian "dit" names. The short version is that:

  • Illiteracy and lack of standardized spelling means that many of my 17th/18th century ancestors have several different spellings for their last names.
  • A common problem for many people migrating to countries that speak a different language: some of these names have slightly (or even very) different spelling/pronunciation over time.
  • Early Canadians had "dit" surnames. E.g. my ancestor from France was "Pierre Boucher", his son migrated to Canada, took a "dit" name and was "Pierre Boucher dit St-Pierre", and by the 1800s they had dropped the Boucher and one man was called "Pierre St-Pierre". (Not a lot of change in the given name, though!)

This is problematic in some of my searches, e.g. Cayer/Cahier/Cayea is a brick wall for me. Also, sometimes a single person has multiple spellings -- or one part or the other of the dit name -- recorded in different places: birth, census, marriage, death.

Is there a convention that makes keeping track of this easier?

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As with patronymics, etc., dit names is a problem in need of a standardized solution. –  GeneJ Oct 11 '12 at 18:19
    
There is no convention for spelling differences, and I don't think there can be. Many software supports searches based on soundalikes, thought. –  Lennart Regebro Oct 16 '12 at 7:39
    
@LennartRegebro: Actually, I recently came across a list of standardized names -- see my answer. –  bstpierre Oct 16 '12 at 12:12
    
@bstpierre: A list of common spellings for a name in one language is hardly a "standardized solution" or a convention for spelling differences. –  Lennart Regebro Oct 16 '12 at 14:18
    
@LennartRegebro: My question is specifically about dit names and variant spellings of French-Canadian surnames. The list of common spellings that I linked to is a comprehensive, standard-worthy solution to this specific problem (17th-19th century French-Canadian surnames). I don't think a universal solution would be possible, though the same approach might work elsewhere -- each time/place/culture would need a similar database. –  bstpierre Oct 16 '12 at 14:39
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2 Answers 2

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Variant spelling of surnames needs to be "handled" in two distinct sets of circumstances. You need to adopt practices to deal with both.

  • Recording known information

    Ensure that you do not lose any information. Find how your software package handles "alternative names" and enter each variant with notes of when and where it was used by each person. Annotate where a son modified his father's surname.

  • Searching for additional information

    Use OR operators in your search queries and find out which wildcards your preferred software or sites will support to enable you to check all the possibilities. For example, search for (Caye? OR Cahier). If you are scanning hard documents or microfiche, you simply need to check more pages.

Take comfort from the fact that this is not only a Canadian or francophone problem. The blog Today in MacAlister History may be produced by the Macalister Historian with the Guild of One-Name Studies; but that one name has an amazing variety of forms.

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The PRDH has a name variations tool that provides standardized spelling across their database.

Note also that Tanguay's Dictionnaire standardizes spelling somewhat -- looking up Lavallée for example will give you only a cross-reference to Vallée.

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