I found a family on the 1861 England census that I could be related to.

enter image description here

However, when I look at the New GRO Index I find a different situation. It seems like the family said that their name was Brien but on their marriage certificate is says O'Brien and their children have different last names: all a variation of O'Brien.

What are some reasons that a family might do this?

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

enter image description here

  • 1
    Do you happen to know if they were 0-gen Irish immigrants? I think that could change the likelihood of the different possibilities
    – Mars
    Nov 15, 2019 at 4:54
  • I believe that they were born in London. Nov 15, 2019 at 8:10
  • Hmm, guess that lowers the odds for my theory that they tried to hide their Irish-ness to avoid discrimination. The timeline would put their marriage just after the Great Famine
    – Mars
    Nov 15, 2019 at 8:15
  • 1
    @Mars One of my ancestors did something similar; he was half-Native American and half-European, and he took the name of his mother's tribe and altered it into a European surname by removing a portion of it, so that he could pass himself off as white.
    – nick012000
    Nov 15, 2019 at 11:49
  • 1
    I have a family name that is very similar to a very common family name, but with a small difference in it. People have been writing it wrong since I was a child, so I'm used to correct them. Someone once made an official document for me and asked me if it was spelled correctly, I looked at it and said "no". Then he asked me if I was sure, so I checked again and said "yes I'm sure". So the man told me "so it's not written [spelling the word]?", so I realized it actually was the right spelling.
    – Destal
    Nov 15, 2019 at 15:55

8 Answers 8


The simple answer is: they didn't.

If they weren't literate (do you have any evidence they were?), then for the census they would have given their details verbally to somebody else to write down (e.g. census enumerator, or a neighbour) who wrote down what they thought they heard. And if the family concerned were illiterate, they wouldn't spot a mismatch. The enumerator then copied the details into his enumerator's book -- so another opportunity for differences to creep in.

The birth certificate was filled in by the registrar not by the family, based on verbal details again. And, if you got a certificate from the GRO, what you've got is a copy of a copy of the original. The registrar filled it in; a hand-written copy was made to send to the GRO who (a century or more later) have copied it for you -- if you're lucky, you'll have an image of the hand-written copy -- but I've received typed transcriptions made by the GRO before now when their copy couldn't be copied. Lots more opportunities for spelling to be altered.

Also of note: standardised spelling is a very recent concept, so it shouldn't be called mis-spelling but variant spelling.

  • 8
    And, of course, "o'" just means "of" or "of the" (i.e. "The time is 12 of the clock") - so it would be perfectly natural to answer "what family are you" with "we're of the Brien family" / "we're o' Brien family". It's a bit like how "mac-<Name>" and "<Name>-son" developed. So, either the Marriage registrar added an "o'" that shouldn't be there, or the census enumerator assumed it was a preposition instead of a prefix and thus excluded it. Nov 15, 2019 at 9:58
  • 1
    Regarding the last sentence, the way I have heard that characterized is that in the past people often weren't as concerned with how they spelled their names.
    – Michael
    Nov 15, 2019 at 21:51
  • 1
    Though this wouldn’t fit OP’s family, I searched unsuccessfully for a Polish immigrant to USA before finding her completely by accident. The Ellis Island clerk wrote down her name with the masculine ending, and then the 20th century indexer changed the second letter from the Polish L-with-slash (U+0142) to the ASCII ‘t’
    – WGroleau
    Nov 16, 2019 at 16:26
  • 3
    @Chronocidal O' in an Irish surname isn't an abbreviation of the English word "of", it's an Irish word meaning "descendant of". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_name#Surnames_and_prefixes
    – Rosie F
    Nov 17, 2019 at 17:24
  • 1
    @RosieF Correct, they are both from the same, older, root word, which also gave us the Latin "ab" ("from") and the Greek "apo" ("away"). I don't know enough about the Irish language to confirm when it changed to specifically mean family descendants instead of just being a general term of origin though - possibly as part of Common Celtic, before it was Old Irish, but certainly not when it was Indo-European. And, 19th century census takers / marriage registrars aren't going to have known that when/if they mixed up "Ó" with "of"... Nov 18, 2019 at 0:59

One possibility is that whoever completed the census return adjusted the surname to, as they saw it, fit in. This is certainly known to happen in Scotland as this link https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/guides/surnames will illustrate - the particular aspect there is the Anglicisation of surnames and tweaking O'Brien to Brien would be an example of that sort of thing.

Another example is my own 3G GPs - they came from Cheshire where the form of their surname was Bate. That generation ended up in North Staffordshire where the usual form is Bates with the terminal s. They initially used Bate for civil registration but then, perhaps tired of correcting their neighbours who used the Staffordshire spelling, gave up and used Bates themselves.

The fact that the census used one and registrations another variant, might actually be down to who filled in the original (assuming literacy) One parent might have been the one to go to the Registrar, while another completed that particular census.

Add in issues of literacy and you can think up numerous possibilities, I'm sure.

  • I'm curious, as this is 1800's England, is there not the possibility of de-Irishing the name? (Meaning a purposeful attempt at assimilation, rather than the census conductor changing it for them)
    – Mars
    Nov 15, 2019 at 2:52
  • That's exactly what I was getting at, @Mars - someone in the family completed the original census form and Anglicised the name. We see the enumerator's copy and I suspect that they had neither the time nor the inclination to alter anything. Again, this assumes someone was literate.
    – AdrianB38
    Nov 15, 2019 at 7:11
  • Hmm.. from the wording, it's not clear if you're suggesting the census officer Anglicized it or the O'Briens did it themselves.
    – Mars
    Nov 15, 2019 at 8:09
  • 1
    To be explicit @Mars my suggestion is that the family - or whoever wrote the original census schedule out - did the Anglicisation.
    – AdrianB38
    Nov 15, 2019 at 8:29
  1. They were illiterate.
  2. They were literate, but someone else was doing the actual writing. I've got some really SPECTACULAR misspelling of he last names of my ancestors from the time when census writers did the writing. The census worker would come and ask someone their name and write it down. If they didn't check the spelling, then whatever they wrote would stay. You can find that when one family's name is butchered by a bad census worker, lots will be.
  3. Shame or concealment. I had one ancestor from a really, really TERRIBLE colonial family. His family members lied, stole, cheated, and had bastards. He found Jesus and became a circuit preacher. And he changed his name's spelling, probably to disassociate himself from the reputation of his family!
  4. Simplification. Over time, complicated names often lost their complications. This happened more readily when people didn't write much. Leigh becomes ly. Four syllables become two.
  5. In your case, losing the O is like dropping the "de" in Anglo Norman names. It was not really part of the name.

It probably doesn't apply in your case, but there are certainly cases of people changing the spelling of their name to appear less like a particular ethnicity. For a personal example, my grandfather was full-blood Portuguese (though born in Boston) and his last name appeared to many in the US as something Hispanic. He changed the spelling from 'Freitas' to 'Frates' because he had moved to Los Angeles in the middle of a backlash against Hispanics that would culminate in the Zoot Suit Riots and it was nearly impossible to find a job with the original spelling.


In 19th century England there was strong anti Irish sentiment. In 1836 Benjamin Disraeli wrote this:

[The Irish] hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood

Disraeli by Robert Blake (Faber & Faber, 2012; first published in 1966)

I think this was representative of public opinion in England at the time.


It was commonplace at the time for businesses and places of accommodation to display signs saying "Irish need not apply" or "No Irish need apply"

In the middle of the 19th century England experienced a large influx of Irish people due to the great famine, this further fueled anti Irish sentiments.

Based on this, I would suggest a likely reason for the anglicisation of the name is to escape or mitigate discrimination based on their Irish heritage.

  • This was my first inclination as well (O'Brian vs O'Brien is clearly a separate matter, most likely explained by literacy, etc). However, the timing is odd. If they dropped the o, it happened somewhere between 3-7 years after the famine, after marriage and the first born child (second born? It's not clear from OP's records) Also, both were born in London, according to OP
    – Mars
    Nov 18, 2019 at 1:01

Different spellings due to illiteracy are not limited to the 19th century, and there can be an additional component; I can attest to such a case. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. One local extended family had two surnames, Frenia and Furnia. If you heard how the first syllable is chewed in pronunciation, you'll understand the rest. At one point a Furnia baby ended up with Frenia on his birth certificate. By the time the parents were aware of this, they thought since it was an official government document it could not be changed. Source: my personal experience* hearing it from a member of the Furnia family, and knowing several Furnia and Frenia, c.1970. Unclear how many generations back it had occurred, at least 2 or 3. So the additional component is how a poor, very rural family perceives their relationship to any government entities.

*personal experience, per the guidelines.


Sometimes it was to avoid embarrassment e.g. Ramsbottom becoming Reams.

Here is a more recent typical local example from rural Ireland.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liam_O%27Connor_(Gaelic_footballer) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Connor are first cousins so their fathers were brothers!

Then there is the Supermarket chain Dunnes Stores. Its founder added the 'e' to his surname because he felt it was better for business.

  • Are you talking about Ben Dunne? Because the Wikipedia article about him says that his father's surname was Dunne already with the e.
    – Rosie F
    Nov 17, 2019 at 17:29
  • I am, and I believe that to be incorrect, but I cant find anything online to verify that. From recollection it came from a feature written in what was then the Cork Examiner in the early '90s. Jan 15, 2020 at 12:07

In the case of some members of part of my own family tree, it came down to a famous criminal and the need to distance from the perceived shame. Another part of my family has spelling differences due to clerks at Ellis Island and the way they spelled the names, and it even goes the same on census forms. The census taker spelled certain names different on their own forms. One child was renamed on census forms as a different child, and the birthdays switched.. not found out until way later in time.

  • I have downvoted your answer because you have repeated the myth that clerks at Ellis Island changed the names of immigrants, which was not the case. The person who purchased the tickets filled out an intake form in the departure port and the information on those forms were copied onto the big sheets. The pages for passengers held for special inquiry hearings were the only records created at Ellis Island. Blame the person who bought the ticket and the shipping company clerks, not Ellis Island inspectors.
    – Jan Murphy
    Apr 6, 2021 at 3:07
  • actually it is not a myth. It was done to my own family. Not once but several times. and it was also done a few times to a french side member of my family at NY Customs as he and his niece traveled between Panama and NYC, not just to the last name of Vacher, which on one for was changed to Vasser for some reason, but to the first and middle names as well.. So do not claim that it was a myth. It may have been ship clerks tht started it but look at how any are searching for towns in Europe, especially Slavic Europe. Apr 7, 2021 at 4:22
  • 1
    I understand that your family believes this, but there is no evidence that clerks deliberately changed the names on passenger lists. Name variants came about on historical records because of simple reasons like clerks writing down what they heard. "Correct" spelling of surnames is an idea that only took hold in the late 20th century.
    – Jan Murphy
    Apr 7, 2021 at 5:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.