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How much do spellings matter?

There were standardised spellings in printed books. The movement towards this began in the mid-18th century probably in imitation of the French system which proved very successful. In England Dr Johnson's Dictionary first set a standard though it was - and is - rather arbitrary. Out went the old mediaeval spellings derived from old French but the spelling of 'labourer' as 'laborer' persisted well into the 19th century. But before the growth of books and newspapers and then universal education in the 1870s, spellings didn't really matter at all. For a printed book consistency is important. For a handwritten record it isn't. It is not uncommon for example to find a record of a baptism where the same surname might be repeated several times because one or two godparents had the same name as the father of the child. One example is the name Goodear - but the priest manages to spell it three different ways, Goodhear and Goodhere. This is obvious confusion, but if there are two records three or four years apart with different spellings for the surname, perhaps Goodear in one and Goodier in the other this does not necessarily imply two different families. (In the case of this particular name they were all from the same family) Children can be missed from a family by making these assumptions, and neither version can be said to be 'right' or 'wrong'. Such spellings only became important as the records themselves began to matter more - and there is still no law making it illegal to change the spelling of one's name!

A family like this might appear to split into two distinct strands simply because neighbouring missions like perhaps Cottam and Newhouse began to favour one spelling over another. Some spellings were phonetic, some defy explanation.. Vowels particularly depend on pronunciation which could vary over a distance of less than twenty miles, but consonants can be misheard and the final result might bear little resemblance to the original. Fortunately unrecognisable versions are not very common.

Handwriting can be particularly hard to decipher but below is an example of a common misunderstanding.

Why did they sometimes write an f instead of an s
This is a genuine F of course but there are frequent uses of what looks like an F before an S, especially in legal documents. This is a cosmetic approach to a double 'ss'.
This word is 'assigns'. The first letter is not an 'f' at all but a long 's'. In printed texts when examined closely it is obvious that the first part of the bar across the downward stroke of the 'f' is missing.

Names - was it Maria or Mary, Helen or Ellen, Aloysia or Alice?

Catholic records were all in Latin until after the Second Vatican Council in 1962. This meant that the names were also given in their Latin versions as far as possible. (Place names were occasionally given in made-up Latin versions too with curious results!) It's probably wise to keep to the name used in the record but in the case of 'Helena' the name was much more likely to be 'Ellen' - often written as 'Ellin'. Even using 'Helen' is far less likely to be the 'right' name than 'Ellen' which was very common, but it can't be completely ruled out. The only safe assumptions are usage in such documents as wills, written in English.. (The Anglican - parish - records are sometimes but not always helpful in this as Latin often persisted for quite a long time there as well)

Other names are more ambiguous. Isabel or the Latin Isabella were both used, often shortened to Bella, - there is not really a 'right' version, they might all be used for the same person.. Anna should probably more often be translated as Ann or Anne but Maria could be either Maria or Mary. Jane might be known as Jenny but in Latin was Joanna. Other common versions were Jennet (probably through the French) and of course Joan. Jennet was possibly more common in Lancashire in earlier times though it has disappeared, Janet probably taking its place. Alice is Aloysia in Latin, occasionally appearing as 'Alicia' instead, but that was uncommon compared to the name Alice. The male version, Aloysius (pronounced Alo-weeshus) has no equivalent in English. Abbreviations were and are common. Occasionally girls were just 'Betty' and never Elizabeth, but the Latin is always translated in records as 'Elizabeth' or 'Elisabeth' of course.

Could these girls all be sisters? Mary Teresa, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Margaret and Margaret Mary?

There was also a devotional practice particularly among the gentry but not confined to them, of giving daughters the additional name of Mary. This causes frequent problems if Mary came first. In Burke's Peerage and his Landed Gentry, apart from the failure to record birth dates for girls - only a favourable marriage is considered of any importance for a girl - even if the first name is Mary the second name is often not recorded at all even though it would be the one actually used, inevitably leading to confusion. It is possible to find more than one girl in a family named 'Mary' and then to assume that the first one died before the other was born but the four girls above could all be sisters and in their eighties. In these instances the names are those popular as saints' names in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mary Jane and Mary Ann (or Marianne) were so common, not just among Catholics, that they are unlikely to be examples of this usage..

At this stage more permanent records were being made but there are frequent gaps if the priest was ill as happened at St Andrew's Cottam for six years between about 1806 and 1812. There doesn't appear to have been a system as in the parish churches which appointed clerks for such duties. The priest himself wrote everything down, usually in Latin. Names of course are in Latin and it is often difficult to tell what someone was actually called. Was it Maria or Mary, Helen or Ellen, Aloysia or Alice etc? It's probably wise to keep to the name used in the record but in the case of 'Helen' the name used was much more likely to be 'Ellen' - often written as 'Ellin' in the parish records.