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My ancestor Mary Ann Harper is frustratingly elusive as mentioned here. However, Harper is a surname that would lend itself to different spellings in censuses, birth records and the like — Harper, Harpur, Harpe are just a few that come to mind — and that's before I factor in possible mis-transcriptions when searching indexed sources online.

Is there a (preferably online or currently in print) reference that would identify all the possible alternatives for a given surname, including likely mis-transcriptions? I'm particularly interested in English and Welsh surnames. I'm aware of First Name Variants By Alan Bardsley that links different variants used for forenames but no printed equivalent for surnames. I've also looked at Thesaurus of British Surnames and the sites that page links to, but that doesn't seem to deal with mis-transcriptions.

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4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted
  1. Soundex was developed (pre-internet!), because the primary differences between regional speech variations was almost exclusively in the vowels - which is why it tosses vowels out. It isn't good at coping with transposed letters. Soundex will not match "Dick==Richard" "Kit==Christopher" or "Ms.==Mrs."
  2. Metaphone (developed 1990) fundamentally improves on the Soundex algorithm by using information about variations and inconsistencies in English spelling and pronunciation to produce a more accurate encoding, which does a better job of matching words and names which sound similar.
  3. NameX is a current technology developed specifically for genealogists for finding surname and forename variants. You can use their name generator to create your own list of potential name misspellings or transcription errors here: NameX technology for finding name variants. Three lists showing the results of each method will be generated, so it's easy to compare the different methods and the results are really helpful. I tried this with English and Germany surnames and the results were excellent. I also tried the forename search, which offered "Andrew" for Andreas, "Christopher" for Kit, and "Richard" for Dick.
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One way to identify the "extreme" possibilities is to use a Soundex calculator. This will generate a code that represents the principal phonemes in the name. If you then back-convert from Soundex, you get a list of names that sound similar.

Rootsweb offers a soundex tool that does both on one page.

Soundex Code for Harper = H616

Other surnames sharing this Soundex Code: HARBERT | HARBOUR | HARBOURNE | HARFORD | HARPER | HERBERGER | HERBERT | HEREFORD | HURFORD |

Note that one of the strengths of Soundex is its inclusion of non-anglo-saxon names that might have been mangled by anglicizing. (Greek, Ukrainian and Scots names can have the same Soundex). You can ignore them if you are certain that the name you are seeking is home-grown.

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There are some starting points on About.com's Top 10 Tips for Finding Alternate Surname Spellings & Variations, but your existing references appear more useful.

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Nice list, Mat. TY –  GeneJ Nov 12 '12 at 1:11
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"likely mis-transcriptions"

I think you'll find that there is no best way to misspell a name. Even if you find it listed as Hunter or Arbor, it will be of little use without another source to confirm it.

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