Detroit Free Press Favorite

Surnames: How Do You Spell Yours?

The Last Will and Testament of Joseph Hough/Hoff/Huff of Lancaster, Pennsylvania

This will was written in Joseph's own hand in April of 1816.

"IN THE NAME OF GOD AMEN, I Joseph Huff of Donegal Township Lancaster County of State of Pennsylvania, being of sound mind and memory but weak in Body do make this my last Will and Testament, IMPRIMUS, To Almighty God, I resign my spirit believing and hoping through the intervention of A Blessed Redeemer to inherit Eternal Life. ITEM, I do constitute and appoint my Brother John Hoff and Joseph Shenk my executors and request them to fulfil this wished fares in their power may lye. To my Wife Elizabeth Hoff, I do give and bequeath during her natural lifetime the Interest arising from the one third of all that I may divest of"….. etc.
(signed) "Joseph Hough"

Joseph spelled his own surname three different ways in this document, as Hoff, Huff and Hough.


He used the three most common variants of the surname Hoff in his will. The name may also appear as Hoss, Hauf, Haff, or at my last count, 49 other variations. The key here is that they all sound alike. Hoss is a particularly interesting variant. Cursive handwriting is often difficult to decipher. In the 1800's a double ss was written as fs or ff, leading to the mistaken interpretation. For instance, the surname Ross is often misinterpreted at Rofs or Roff in documents because of this rule. If you are unaware of this you may miss your ancestors entry in a vital record or census. One of the cardinal rules for successful genealogical research is giving up the notion that your surname can only be spelled one way. Early on in my own research, a cousin , frustrated in her own research, stated "I sure wish I knew how they REALLY spelled their name". My answer was, "as many ways as you can think of". She was absolutely sure that there could be only one way to spell Akins. I showed her documents from our paternal great-great-great grandmother where even she had used no consistent spelling. In some of the documents the name is spelled Aikens, in other Akin or Akins. Common variants of the name also include Eakins, Ekins, Aikins, but never Adkins or Atkins. Hanging on to the notion that the surname that you are investigating was only spelled one way will lead to frustration and giant brick walls that are nearly impossible to climb over. Surnames may be changed in many different ways. Informally by the individual is the most common way. The person, for whatever reason, simply begins spelling the name differently. This may be to accommodate transition into a new culture, because they don't like the name, want to distance themselves from their family or someone with a similar name who is notorious, or because the name is frequently misspelled. The notion that most name changes occurred at Ellis Island is incorrect. Immigration authorities provided translators on debarkation who were experts in the culture of the immigrant to interpret and transcribe the surname. It is more likely that the name changed through common usage or misinterpretation after arrival. The name may also be changed formally through the legal process to make it official. This is done by petitioning the court for the change. Women legally changed their name when they married. The most common way in which surnames are changed is by misspelling. Surnames were often written as they sounded to the people writing. This was particularly true during census enumerations. Surnames may also be misspelled by government officials. As an example, during WWII, one of my husband's relatives served in the Army. The government enlisted him with the surname spelled Grambeau, instead of Grambau. Despite years of effort to change the mistake, he finally gave up and spells his name Grambeau. The surname can also be spelled Grambo, Grambaugh or Grambow. While trying to research this French Huegenot family I discovered that the spelled Grambau was a misinterpretation of the German Script. The name was spelled Grambow in Prenzlau. Au and ow are frequently misinterpreted in script.

Tips for Spelling Surnames

Vowels are interchangeable: a, e, i, o, u, and y may all be substituted for one another or added on. When you are looking for your surname try substituting vowels for one another; for instance, the surname Hoff could also be Hoaf or Hof or Huff or Haff or Haf.

Remember that the vast majority of people documenting vital records DID NOT know how the person spelled their surname. In one document that I transcribed recording a birth the physician spelled Hoffman three different ways: as Hofmann, Hoffman and Hoffmann.

Letters are occasionally left off or added on. For instance Smith might become Smit, or Smithe. Try to spell the name phonetically. Another suggestion would be to put something in your mouth and ask someone to interpret what you are saying and then have them write it down. Try substituting commonly mistaken letters. For instance, in German B and P are essentially the same. Blantz and Plantz are virtually interchangeable in the records.

Common letters that are interchangeable include:
          s and z
          b and p
          s and f
          t and l
          y and z
          v and w
          m and n
          c and k

Add or subtract qualifiers to the surname. Hoff becomes Hoffmann. White becomes Whiteman.

Given Names or
What do they really call you when they talk about you?

The same problems that exist with surnames exist with given names. Remember that given names are often a clue to the era that a person lived in. Bessie was popular in the early part of the century, but you would be hard put to find someone who has recently named their daughter Bessie. Your grandmother was called Annie, but her real name was Anastasia . Antoinette may be called Ann, Annie or Nettie in the records. In German communities Johann Jacob Heinrich may have been called John, Jacob or Henry. His brother may have the exact same name but be called by a different familiar given name. Lizzie may be Elizabeth or Eliza. Nancy may be Nannie or Nan. Margaret is also called Peggy and Mary Ann is frequently known as Polly. Ed may be an Edmund or an Edward. John may be Jack and Bill can be Will or William too.

One of the best things that you can do is to prepare a list of possible alternative spellings for both the surname and given names of your ancestors. Doing this just may help you break down one of your brick walls. Surnames are the clues to your family's history!

Donna Hoff-Grambau is co-webmaster of the Michigan Family History Network. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a concentration in American History. Her areas of research expertise include early American migration patterns, genealogical records, the Mid-Atlantic States, Sweden, Scotland, Ukraine and Southeastern Poland, and Northern Europe. Her passion is Michigan History and Genealogy.