Surname variation

+4 votes
What is the WikiTree policy on variant surnames? Because changing the surname gives a person a completely new profile link.

The basis of WikiTree’s interface revolves around the surname. Granted it is the cornerstone of genealogy, but in past times spelling was inconsistent. For instance my ancestors were variously spelt Mortimore, Mortymer, Mortemer, and in medieval times even, de Mortuo Mari. I have seen the surname Clutterbuck spelt numerous different ways.

Wikitree rather disappointingly assumes that there is a definitive ie. correct spelling for each surname, which can be discerned in some instances but in others may be more murky. For instance should it be Bailey or Bayley? The spelling didn’t seem to matter so much to our ancestors, but in wiki it appears we have to decide which one to run with, as it affects the entire family tree.
in Policy and Style by David Mortimer G2G6 Mach 1 (14.8k points)
edited by Darlene Athey-Hill

Wikitree rather disappointingly assumes that there is a definitive ie. correct spelling for each surname

asked by David Mortimer


Not at all.  It is not that there is an assumption that there is only one correct way to spell a name.  What we are told to do is use the earliest known spelling from documents, and to place variant spellings in the other last names field. 

This may not be easy when the earliest document lists the same name with more than one spelling in the same document, but each person needs a unique identifier - and Wikitree, as does FamilySearch and other sites do, uses the earliest known last name as the last name at birth.

Variant names aren't that different from determining the correct patronymic when documents may also use soldier names.

If Samuel Byers uses that spelling, but his children use Biers, then he gets Byers, they get Byers LNAB and Biers CLN.  Then their children get Biers LNAB.  Any other spelling variations go under OLN.

If Joseph Smith decides halfway through his life he wants Smyth, then before he dies he changes it back, you explain it in the biography, while using Smith as LNAB and Smyth as OLN. 


edited to correct an oopsy.

"Last name at birth" is an abomination that is (luckily) unique to WikiTree. FamilySearch does the reasonable and sane thing and assigns the database identifier randomly, without reference to any user input beyond the existence of the person. You still have to choose one spelling to put in the primary name field, but you can change your mind any time without any consequences. (Heck, you can put a different spelling for every member of the family; on FS, it will have no impact on anything, really.)
Melanie referenced OLN which is Other Last Names.  Current Last Name can be different than the LNAB Last Name at Birth.  We have plenty of people that came from Europe, or other places, so they were born with one name, but then changed it to be an 'Americanized' name, so that becomes their Current Name.  Other Last Names is used for the spelling variations, previous married names (for women), other name changes, etc.

Melanie referenced OLN which is Other Last Names.  Current Last Name

by Linda Peterson

I oops'd on that. blush   Fixing.

2 Answers

+2 votes
Best answer
I think some people become too fixated on what a field is titled (i.e. 'Last name at birth' (aka LNAB)).  For earlier profiles, the fields don't have the same 'meaning' as they do for later profiles.  The LNAB field is used for the most common way by which a person was referred to, since surnames didn't even exist in medieval times.  We also have to understand that their name wasn't as it was spelled in a document written in Latin.  Sometimes on Wikitree we have given them a dynasty name; other times we've used what researchers have commonly referred to them as.

As Melanie noted, we have more than one field to allow us to list the various variants.  Sometimes a person was born in an area and so we would give them a LNAB based on that.  They may later have been granted other lands and became known by a different 'surname', which would go in CLN (current last name).  Variant spellings can be in OLN (other last name).

We ask that, if/when considering creating a new medieval profile, you discuss it here on G2G in advance if there are any doubts as to what the 'proper' LNAB should be.  And it should be tagged with EuroAristo, Medieval, and the country where the person lived to bring it to the attention of the various project leaders and members.

Darlene - Co-Leader, European Aristocrats Project
by Darlene Athey-Hill G2G6 Pilot (471k points)
selected by David Mortimer
Thanks Darlene.

That certainly clarifies one thing- that LNAB means the most accepted version of the name, not the name on the first record of their life such as a baptism record, or for that matter the earliest dated record about them.

For instance the great Elizabethan poet William Shakespeare would be spelt that way, and all his family members too, as that is the version we know and recognise today, despite him actually signing his own name on occasion as “Shakspere”! This can go in the variant field.

For most names there is a most accepted version. For names which are uncertain ie. Price/ Pryce or Davis/ Davies etc. we should pick which one to use and then stick with it.

Thanks for the feedback, I’m glad this generated discussion.

Well, certainly there will be people that disagree with me.  LNAB discussions can lead to intense discussions . . .  I try to steer in one direction, but life's too short to sweat the small stuff and I won't get into an argument with anyone over it.  So long as we have the variables in the OLN field . . .  wink

For most of history we don't have baptismal records. Of course where we do have one, this should be considered when deciding on the LNAB. (But they can be wrong. Most baptismal records are nothing more than a rushed note in a parish register.)
Thank you for the answer Darlene. Right now my great grandmother's maiden name is Willis after family immigrated to the United States. Prior to colonization it had variants that were spelled Willes and Wyllys in Europe. I currently go by records that are documented from the family and written in family bibles. That gives me the correct last name at birth. If accessing records from courthouses I use the name given in those documents.
+1 vote

That really depends on the area.  Euro-Aristo project have their standards, other projects have their own.  In my part of the world, we use the LNAB from the baptism, that is the actual name AT BIRTH.  Very often people had ''dit'' names that get added on CLN and OLN fields.  We do not want the ''dit'' names included in LNAB field unless it was the only name used on the baptism.  Causes no end of duplicate profiles otherwise, since the computer system just cannot differentiate between all the various ways they can be entered.

by Danielle Liard G2G6 Pilot (492k points)

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