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.

8 Answers 8

  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.

UPDATE ====================================================

NameX no longer appears to be active. A similar system that focuses more upon British names (deriving results based upon the 1881 census of England, Scotland and Wales), is Nominex. A search using the Nominex on-line demo for "Farris" returned 191 surname variants and provided the frequency of each occurrence in the 1881 census.

  • 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
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 1:07
  • 1
    @Dijkgraaf Thanks, I updated the dead link with a new one :) Commented May 29, 2015 at 5:12
  • Namex Link is dead again :(
    – Danny B
    Commented Jul 30, 2020 at 7:25
  • @DannyBarber Thanks for the heads up. I've updated the answer to offer an alternative solution, since NameX appears to be no longer active. Commented Jul 31, 2020 at 8:33
  • That's a useful new resource -- thank you.
    – user6485
    Commented Jul 31, 2020 at 8:36

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.

There are number online Soundex calculators, such as the one
on the MyTrees.com advanced search page . Click the "Name Variants" link, Enter the surname and click the "Find Spelling Variations" button.

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.


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.


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.


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.


"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.


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.


Well it is not effectively possible in reality to do what you are attempting to do in the first place. There are by enlarge no general one fits all answers of this nature.

Therefore what you require to do is to consider each of the original sources open to you to at any given point in your research and then use and them as primary sources to work from. That is what Genealogy is about. This answer is likely to give you one the best options open to you to work from.

It is often a good idea to check any given entry both with the Parish Register entry and also with the Bishop's Transcript of the entry. Where this is possible to do. The two entries should be exactly the same entry. However their is no way of telling, if they are in fact the same entry unless you look at both entries. This can also show, if the B.T. was used as a working copy for the register and then written up at a latter date into the parish register, or if this was in fact done the other way around unless you look at both copies of the entry and note any differences over the period in question. The difference in hand writing between the one entry and the other can also be useful in itself as one hand might be better to read than the other. This can also help in picketing up any entries omitted in error between the one source and the other.

  • 1
    I'm struggling to see how this answers the question, even though it's good advice.
    – user6485
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 6:52

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