"My family has always spelled our name this way, so that can't be the right record."

How many times have you heard that from another researcher or even thought that about one of your own surnames? In addition to being mangled on a daily basis because of other people's perceptions and auditory issues, surnames evolve, become standardized, anglicized or translated. To paraphrase a current idiom, stuff happens. Sometimes surnames are changed from one name to another like in adoption and marriage, other times they evolved slowly over generations.


  • Anglicize or Ethnicize
  • Translate
  • Shorten
  • Lengthen
  • Standardize
  • Differentiate
  • Ease
  • Ellis Island Effect/Soundex/Phonetics
  • Avoidance of ugly Anglo Saxon comparisons German Fuchs to Fox
  • Nicknames



The surname Eisenbise was changed from Eisenbeis for ease in spelling. More complicated surnames, were anglicized from a desire to have less ethnic names for instance, German surnames during World War I and World War II. Anglicized French, German, Dutch, Italian, Portugese or Spanish surnames may lack a space between the particle or preposition and the main surname, for instance La Fayette to Lafayette. The particle or preposition may or may not be capitalized while the main surname is always capitilized. German names with umlauts change to double vowels. Hispanic compound surnames change to a hyphenated set of names or change the order of the compound so the maternal surname turns into a middle name and the paternal surname is last and therefore the name upon which indexing occurs. The converse may also be true, a name might be changed back to a more ethnic choice as a way of reclaiming that heritage. I know of a man added his maternal grandfather's surname Buchanan as a part of a hyphenated surname to honor his Scottish heritage.  In 1894 in Reading, Pennsylvania most members of the Eisenbeis family had changed to Eisenbise, several were using Eisenbice and one was still noted as Eisenbeis.

Eisenbeis, Eisenbice and Eisenbise in Reading, Berks Co., Pennsylvania 



Carpenter, an occupational surname meaning worker of wood, translates from:

Two different Sephardic surnames, Anidar and Anijar mean carpenter. Check all the various ethnic surname websites to see if there is a discussion of the specific name you need.



Andreasdotter shortened to Andreas or Andrew or Andrews.

Wittmann shortened to Witman

Reichenbachen shortened to Reichenbach

Eissenbeiss to Eisenbeiss or Eissenbeis to Eisenbeis 


Brook to Brooke, Cook to Cooke, and Smith to Smythe



After decades (or centuries) in the United States, some Pearce family members gave up and changed their name to Pierce for ease of spelling, some didn't. The Pierce Cemetery in Evensville, Rhea Co., Tennessee had burials as early as 1848, but while other Pearce family members in Alabama were still using Pearce.

Pierce Cemetery, Evensville, Rhea Co., Tennessee



A great example of nonstandardized surname spellings would be President Dwight David Eisenhower. There are Eisenhower schools, playgrounds, bridges, tunnels, roads, and buildings all over America in honor of this general and president. In geographic areas with German heritage there are tons of families whose names are pronounced the same but spelled differently. Nine of the major variants:

  • Eisenhauer
  • Eisenhour
  • Eisenhower
  • Icenhauer
  • Icenhour
  • Icenhower
  • Isenhauer
  • Isenhour
  • Isenhower

Schematic of Eisenhower Tunnel I-70 Colorado 


The flip side of standardization is differentiation, to make a surname more distinctive instead of run of the mill. Differentiate, add an E so you have Browne instead of Brown; add an S so you have Andersson instead of Anderson. I can't count the times I have typed Hannah Anderson into Google or Bing when I meant to type Hanna Andersson.

 Hanna Andersson


Ellis Island, Phonetics and/or Officious Clerks

In America there is lot of discussion of the Ellis Island effect on surnames. Stories are rampant about officials who didn't care, weren't listening, wrote down what they wanted, translated poorly, went from cyrillic to latin based alphabets without adjusting, used the town name instead of a too common surname like Smith or Johnson, anglicized spelling, lots of issues.

A story goes something like this:

These ancestors came through at Ellis Island and they couldn’t be understood so the clerk changed the name from Berens to Barrens or from Yakonovich to Yak or from Andreasdotter to Andrews.

Sure it happened sometimes that a name was spelled one way in the old country and changed upon entry in the new country. Clerks everywhere in officialdom get surnames wrong. While all of the possible explanations might be true, it is also true that many people are very protective of their surnames and spend enormous amounts of time correcting the spelling of their name. Henritze is a perfect example. I learned how to spell it by listening to my mother spelli it over and over again on the phone, over counters and at stores. There were tons of bureaucratic places that problem could have occured, not just Ellis Island. There are those who claim their ancestor was too hesitant/afraid of officialdom to change it back so he/they just left it as the clerk spelled it. This is a person who traveled halfway across the world to provide his or her family with a better life. I seriously doubt he or she was afraid of the clerk at Ellis Island, respectful yes, and certainly those who had sick a child or relative, were frightened the clerks would send them to the sick line and or turn them down for entry. I also believe that someone smuggling in diamonds or something illegal might be scared and or hesitant to confront officialdom. On the whole I seriously doubt the men and women who arrived at Ellis Island to begin their lives in America, were scared, frightened, meek, subservient people. They were intrepid, strong, and adventuresome, as coming to America was no picnic. Those covering up illness, criminal history, falsified papers, smuggling, sure they had reasons to be afraid of the clerks. I have a friend who thinks she might have been a little hesitant, timid or exhausted after the whole voyage, so.. while I think it may have just been language barriers, pronunciation, spelling, and auditory issues that caused misunderstandings about surnames, there is a case for  immigrants to have had authority issues with the clerks.


Soundex codes were invented so names with the same sounds could be sorted together as long as the initial letter was the same. This was a huge help in the multiple syllable surnames from middle and eastern Europe and some of the Italian names also. One question the soundex code does not solve are surnames with an initial letter change such as Drupp and Trupp; Zweitzig and Sweitzig and Wagner and Vagner. English with twenty six letter has several that have interchangable sounds in certain situations. Remember learning the letter K and then the letter C with a hard sound  vs. the letter S and the letter C with a soft sound. B, F and V had much the same sound with ph added into the mix for extra confusion. D and T can easily be confused in some words as can W and V especially with a German accent.The soundex system was invented to combat letter switching or substitution and with its complete lack of interest in vowels it helps with many of the longer surnames with similar beginnings.

Soundex Code - letter substitution

As researching techniques have evolved on the internet especially with every name searching instead of head of the household indexes, the soundex system is not used as much as it had been in the past when it was the gateway to the 1900 census. Many search engines including  Ancestry, Familysearch and Mocavo, knowing how helpful the soundex is and was to locating names in the census, offer a soundex search option. The soundex is still a standout research option to locate hard to spell, hard to say, surnames in other records.



Any discussion of surname evolution in America must include the nickname factor. Baumhardt  became Boomer and his wife Mrs. Boomer. To me TVA means Tennessee Valley Authority as I have a lot of Southern and Tennessee roots. In college there was a man whose initials were TVA; he was known as TVA distinguished from two other friends known as TVD and JVZ, all with Dutch surnames beginning with Van. Growing up with a dad who followed baseball, I had heard of Connie Mack (Connie Mack was Cornelius Mcguillicudy, one son known as Connie Mack Jr. and another as Earle Mack) and my personal favorite Rudy Tomjanovich. The surname Tomjanovich fascinated me, why wasn't it shortened? We had friends who had a son named Tom Jonovich and his mom was known as Mrs. Jono. So how did Rudy keep his entire moniker? 

Surnames evolve Henrici to Henritze, Pearce to Pierce, Eisenbeis to Eisenbise, Esenwein to Esenwine and Jungbludt to Youngblood; hyphenated for lineage, inheritance, marriage or distinction Williams to Goddard-Williams; Hispanic compound names; translated Zimmerman and Ciesla to Carpenter; shortened Troy Tulowitzki's may well become Tulo; nicknamed like Connie Mack; melded made up names; Ellis Island effect which included similar sounding names, easier to spell variants and complete and utter misunderstandings. In America few names are left alone. Our dog’s name is Tucker, diminutive (shortened to) Tucky and then affectionately lengthened to Tuckymeister. No excuses, it just happened. Thank goodness he comes when I whistle. 

Ida Sherwood Bettis is my paternal grand mother. Aunt Clara is my great aunt. I can remember every nooks and crany of that house and yard...

Eric Bettis Eric Bettis 25. July, 2017 |

I would be happy to forward your name, connection, and email if you wish.

Barbara K. Henritze Barbara K. Henritze 06. November, 2016 |

Shopping Cart

The cart is empty