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2,405 study surnames with us
and a further 6,120 variant names.

Variants and deviants


When registering a name with the Guild, it has always been expected that the registrant should study not only the primary spelling, but also all the known variant spellings. So it is important to be able to identify what are variants of a specific registered name and what are not.

Some years ago, the Guild President, Derek Palgrave, coined the term ‘deviant’ to describe those apparent variants that were really clerical errors in recording or transcription. In other words, these are not spelling variants that the person concerned would actually have used. The Guild recommends that members should not register deviant spellings as variants; the variants registered should be limited to those still found today. This raises the question of how to tell a variant from a deviant?

The starting point of any discussion of variants and deviants must be the fact that, in former times, not only did names get recorded with a wide range of spellings, but individuals themselves may have used many versions too. It is said that Shakespeare spelt his own name in six or more different ways over his lifetime, from evidence of known signatures. Additionally, when many people were illiterate and could not sign their own name, it is not possible to say that any given spelling was ‘used’ by the individual. Officialdom will have recorded their name and this may have become the adopted and accepted spelling of the name; indeed, this is the likely method by which variants arose. It can often be seen that the recorded spelling in parish registers changes with the change of incumbent. Should all such spellings be considered as variants?

The Guild’s advice is that it depends on the consistency with which the name is recorded in official documents. If the vicar or clerk consistently used a given spelling over many years, then it may be considered as a variant, bearing in mind that such records might have been called on as evidence in things like settlement disputes or probate. On the other hand, vicars, like anyone else, might use a large range of spelling variants with no particular pattern and these should in general be considered deviants.

The Guild therefore defines a variant as a name spelling which varies from the primary name spelling (or another variant spelling) used by that person’s ancestors and which is:

  • A name spelling that the person was known to have used, through signature evidence on wills, marriage bonds etc or other documents originating from the individual concerned, or
  • A name spelling used by officials on a consistent and persistent basis over a period of years.

A deviant is any other spelling recorded, including cases where the spelling occurs in official records, but only randomly and inconsistently. Deviants will also include spellings derived from enumeration, transcription and indexing errors, both contemporary and modern.

Having decided what spellings are variants, it may still not be appropriate to register all of them on a one-name study. Such cases include where a variant overlaps with another existing study or where the variant is more commonly found as a surname in its own right and where the variant is a minority source of that name. The latter exclusion avoids the problems that would occur if someone wanted to register the surname concerned as a primary study name. In these overlapping cases, it is hoped that members will collaborate in exchanging information on boundary cases.

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