How do you decide what is somebody's "real" surname? Is there some hierarchy of data sources that you follow or do you just go by preponderance of usage? I'm talking about spelling variants -- not obvious cases where a name is changed during immigration or due to some event such as marriage.

For example, I have a relative who remarried and her second husband's and her new last name was Kenny according to 1930 census. However her 1934 death certificate shows Kenney. Yet her husband's 1932 death certificate shows Kinney. So how to decide what is "correct"? I'd like to know, given the circumstances outlined, what "best practices" are recommended by those of you who have been at this a while and know what you're doing.

Her husband immigrated from Croatia according to the census so there's a chance that his birth name was none of these.

  • Mike, this is very similar to the question indicated, so I'm going to mark it as a duplicate. When you've looked at the answers there, if you feel there's still some information you're missing, come back here and edit the question to ask for what's missing. If you comment here when you've done that with @ColeValleyGirl in the text, I'll re-enable it for answers.
    – user104
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 17:50
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    I'm not sure the original question and answers deal adequately with spelling variations - e.g. are spelling variations genealogically significant? And should we handle a drift in spelling over the years the same as variation over a short period?
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 20:02
  • Hi @Mike. I think this case is a duplicate, in contrast to your recent photo question, but it is a very common problem. The essence is that people have to break the connection between who an individual is, and the names by which they were known. Software can easily take care of all someone's alternative names (e.g. formal, informal, maiden, Romanized, etc) but there is always the problem of how you identify them uniquely in a report, or a chart, or simply on the screen. In principle, this "title" (for want of another term) doesn't even have to be a name. This is covered already though.
    – ACProctor
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 20:52
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    Hi @ColeValleyGirl. I don't think it's the same question that this is linked to. I'm asking about the point that was glossed over in that post which was "The list gets longer when we consider spelling variants." In particular I'm wondering how to decide which to use. Would you go with the most correct-seeming document? Or maybe perhaps the variant in most widespread use? What is the general rule? Thanks.
    – Mike
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 21:29
  • This question was initially closed as a possible duplicate of: genealogy.stackexchange.com/q/307/108. It has since been re-worded but it now sounds closer to: genealogy.stackexchange.com/q/2254/108.
    – ACProctor
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 14:20

2 Answers 2


Confusion about names and name variants can lead to confused identities and brick walls.1 I'm glad to see questions like this posed in context.

You wrote, "How do you decide what is somebody's "real" surname?"

One of the best way to learn someone's real surname is to seek out records containing primary information about the name. For example, forms and/or documents/letters the person filled out, authored and signed. Elizabeth Shown Mills describes this as "standard usage" about those who are/were "literate" and where "signature samples exist." 2

Depending on the record circumstance, the marriage license about your relative and her second husband might include signatures/this kind of primary information. There might be deeds and/or letters, too. You mentioned that he immigrated from Croatia; possibly there is a naturalization record about him that contains his signature.

By comparison, we don't really know the circumstance about how most names would have been enumerated in 1930 US census (probably an oral communication; unidentified informant). As well, the name given for the decedent on a death certificates is provided by a third party, too.

Ha! If she acted as the informant on his 1932 death certificate, then her signature might appear therein.

Notes and References:

  1. One of the best ways to learn about usage practices is to read articles in scholarly genealogical journals, such as the Register or Quarterly. A recent article focused on how learning more about a difficult name and its variants helped to solve a genealogy brick wall. See the Register article by Henry Z. Jones, Jr., titled, "The Ancestry of Mary Whitten (Whiting), wife of Ichabod Crippen" [begins at vol 166 (Oct 2012), p. 259] From the article, "By checking various indices of surnames of colonial American families and seeing how “Whiting,” ‘Whiton,” “Whiten,” “Whittin,” “Whetten,” “Witon,” “Whitten,” and even “Whitney” often were used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in reference to the very same name, a new avenue of exploration as to the ancestry of Mary “Whiting” Crippen opened up. This article is the result of that journey."
  2. Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Re: [TGF] Surname spelling variants," Transitional-Genealogists-Forum-L message dated 24 Jun 2011.
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    I don't believe that Mills thread recognises how common deliberate changes of spelling, and of name, occurs. I have a lot of independent examples in my own tree. My own method (see genealogy.stackexchange.com/q/2254/108) uses a distinguishing "title" (which may be an annotated name) and relegates the history of their name variants to an appendix or reference note. The main difference to the Mills recommendation in that the default/standardized/canonical-name is generalised to a "title" and accommodates more flexibility and avoids ambiguities. For instance, "Fred Bloggs (1860)".
    – ACProctor
    Commented Feb 4, 2013 at 11:07
  • @ACProctor But that was not the challenge of this question. Mike is asking how you learn someone's real name, given a set of circumstances. "Names" is surely a topic larger than life for the family historian; one could write a book and not touch on all the possible issues. Sounds to me as though your comment lays the ground work for another great Genealogy.SE question. I hope you ask it in the context of specifics.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 2:24
  • Thanks to both of you. The signature idea is obvious yet I hadn't even thought of that. It sounds like it just comes down to the evidence and one's judgement of its strength until something definitive comes along. At the moment, I have 1930 census for the family "Kenny" (maybe least reliable), death cert of husband "Kinney" with wife as informant and death cert of wife "Kenney" with teenage (step)daughter as informant. So I'm leaning towards "Kinney" as being correct BUT I have a 1940 census of their child living in a different state listed as "Kenny." So the jury is still out.
    – Mike
    Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 4:19
  • @Mike Thank you. Even when the immediate members of a family are all literate, children may not all adopt the same surname variant. For a nineteenth Cline/Kline family I'm working on now; not all the children may have continued the name as Cline. My direct line has descendants that carry on three identifiable eighteenth century spellings, Presbury, Presson and Preston.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 11:49

Apologies for the misunderstandings. I see now from the modified question that it's specifically the spelling variations you're concerned about.

I think searching for a "real" surname could be a fruitless quest. Some spelling variation will certainly be the product of errors (e.g. illiteracy, recording what was heard, and transcription errors) but some will be deliberate.

My own surname was once spelled consistently as "Procter" in my home town. Somewhere around 1850, the family obviously took the decision to change the spelling as it was just as consistently "Proctor" thereafter.

It's not just surnames too. A case I'm actually working on at the moment concerns someone whose middle name mysteriously changed from "Kindle" to "Kenyon". Since I only have one item of evidence for each alternative, although several items with a middle initial of "K", then I can't say whether either one was an error. I have a strong case for the middle name at baptism (Kindle) being based on the surname of the father as she was illegitimate and there was someone with this rare surname on the same street at the same time. The middle name at marriage (Kenyon) may have been an error (did she not remember her real middle name?) or it could have been deliberate (maybe she wanted to break any connection to her biological father).

In situations of variant names, it's always good to record the evidence verbatim against each cited source. In a good software product, the details of the relevant person will accommodate alternative names. So, the essence of your question is when to copy those variations in the evidence to the accepted alternative names for a person. This has to be on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it is obviously an error but sometimes it's not an error, and sometimes you may not be certain as in my case above.


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