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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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7 Answers 7

up vote 15 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 this 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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The link to NameX gets forwarded to another site now that doesn't seem to have that technology (or at least not obviously there). – Dijkgraaf May 28 at 1:07
@Dijkgraaf Thanks, I updated the dead link with a new one :) – Canadian Girl Scout May 29 at 5:12

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


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'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

"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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For an 'out of the box' answer -- one of the more interesting blog posts I've come across recently is from Kenneth Marks' site The Ancestor Hunt where he offers a series of lessons on how to do newspaper research, including 8 Ways to Overcome OCR Errors when Searching Newspapers.

Unlike Soundex, he focuses on substituting letters which have the same shapes which are likely to be confused when the computer does optical character recognition.

For 'Harper' this tip might apply:

If there is an "h" in your search term, try exchanging a "b", since b's and h's are quite similar and can "confuse" the OCR process. As an example, searching the California Digital Newspaper Collection for one of my surnames - "Braunhart" yields 1,507 results. Replacing the "h" with a "b", hence searching for "Braunbart" yields 96 results - for the SAME person. That is approximately another 6%!

An easy way to find out which OCR misreadings occur for a given surname may be to go to sites like the Internet Archive, Trove, or The British Newspaper Archive which allows the user to see the OCR text and to look for how your target surname is misread.

Non-genealogy sites might have more suggestions of this nature -- for example, sites which are geared toward helping people with dyslexia.

I've seen software / websites with surname variants for German surnames but nothing for English and Welsh so far.

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I'm surprised no-one seems to have mentioned using wildcards. Provided the search engine of the site you are using will support it (and Ancestry is pretty limited in this regard), putting in "Harp*" will deal with the most obvious variant endings and you can vary the position of the asterisk and the number of letters to what suits.

I've had a lot of success simply bashing away using wildcards in searches till misspellings were revealed. For names with rarer letters, it's particularly convenient - say, to search for variants of Hexter you could use something like "(star)x*r" (this page won't show "(star)" as * there).

Conversely, I've found Soundex to be very limited indeed.

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None of these answers will find all the surname variants and deviants. Soundex and other phonetic algorithms will find some, wildcards will find most.

The only way that is possible to locate all spelling alternatives is to leave the surname field blank. Fill in other fields instead (as few as possible) such as first name, place, or date, to narrow down the results. Of course, there is going to be a large number of false positives, but you can be sure you will not miss a potential result. For example, if Harper has been transcribed as Smith – it happens – you will find it.

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