Guest blog by historian Carol Baxter;

If you were researching the surname Staff, would it occur to you to look for Huff?

At the Australasian Genealogical Congress in March 2015, an attendee mentioned the surname Staff. The expectation seemed to be that there weren’t too many ways in which this surname could be spelt thereby ensuring that it would be easy to find. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s begin with some background information about surnames.

We live in a literate, bureaucratic world so we tend to think about surnames as groups of written letters. However, prior to the universal literacy of the late 1800s, a large portion of the population was illiterate. And, to state the obvious, the portion of illiterate people increases the further back we travel in time. That being the case, the ordinary person did not perceive surnames as groups of written letters. In fact, the illiterate in the community had no sense of surnames as letters. This is what writing must have looked like to the average person:

Carol Baxter what writing looked like

To the community in general, surnames were groups of spoken sounds. So, it is critical that family historians rid themselves of the notion that their ancestors’ surnames had fixed spellings (indeed, Shakespeare – who must be considered the epitome of literacy – apparently spelt his own surname in six different ways). By thinking that surnames have a single consistent spelling, we limit our ability to find our ancestors’ entries under different spellings.

Back to Staff. The first point to observe is that it reflects a meaningful word. When a scribe heard a person pronouncing a surname, he attempted to find meaningfulness* in the groups of sounds he heard. He searched his mental lexicon for a word or surname that matched this group of sounds and, in this instance, pulled out the meaningful word staff.

However, the spelling staff is not the most likely phonetic* spelling for this group of sounds. And phonetics is what the scribe drew upon when he didn’t instantly find a word in his mental lexicon. As the most common spelling for the vowel sound in staff is ‘ar’*, the most obvious phonetic spelling for this group of sounds is:


Would we find this variant if we were searching for Staff? There are four ways in which we locate surnames when we conduct genealogical research. Let’s simplify them to four terms so we can readily assess them in our analysis of this surname’s variants. We:

  1. Eyeball a source: that is, we scan a historical source by eyesight alone;
  2. Use an Index: that is, we search a strict alphabetical index or one that  groups surnames by their first letter;
  3. Use a Wildcard search: that is, we use a search function that allows us to replace letters with a question-mark or asterisk so as to readily find spelling variants; and/or
  4. Use a Soundex search: that is, we use a surname grouping algorithm like Soundex*, which is employed by some online databases to assist in finding surname variants. Soundex is only one of the algorithms used by online databases; however, the purpose here is to communicate the likelihood of a variant coming up in such an online surname search so Soundex provides a simple example.

So, would these strategies find the variant Starf?

  1. Eyeball: Yes, if we had an open mind to the possibility of spelling variations.
  2. Index: Probably not because there are dozens of surnames that fall between Staf.. and Star.. (unless the index is small).
  3. Wildcard: Yes, if we searched for ‘St?f’.
  4. Soundex: No, because Soundex generates a code for the internal letter ‘r’ as do other surname grouping algorithms. Staff is coded S310 while Starf is coded S361. This means that these different spellings are not brought up in the same search.

Back to the phonetic spelling Starf. Surnames that end in consonants often replace a single consonant with a double consonant, a pattern regularly found in single syllable surnames like Staff. Sometimes, they even include a silent ‘e’ at the end of the surname*. This gives us:

Starff and Starffe

Would we find these variants?

  1. Eyeball: Yes, if we are open-minded.
  2. Index: No, for the reasons listed above.
  3. Wildcard: Not if there is an ‘e’ on the end.
  4. Soundex: No, for the reasons listed above.

An important piece of linguistic information that surname hunters need to keep in mind is that most consonants have a sound pair*. This is critical information for surname searchers because the letters in sound pairs are often exchanged. The sound pair of ‘f’ is ‘v’ and an example of such a letter exchange is shown in the spellings Oliver and Oliffa; these are listed for the same person in the Biographical Database of Australia. (By the way, in terms of the surname examples used here and in Help! Why can’t I find my ancestor’s surname?, these were drawn from what could be renamed the Biographical Database of British and Irish Criminals. As criminals reflect a random sample of surnames, such variants—and everything else discussed in the Help! book—are of relevance to anyone tracing surnames from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.*)

If we replace ‘f’ with ‘v’, this gives us Stavv or Starv or Starvv or Starvve. These endings are not found in the English language for two reasons: we don’t use a double ‘v’ in English words and, at the end of words and surnames, we follow a single ‘v’ with an ‘e’.* So, if a scribe misheard ‘f’ as ‘v’, or if the speaker had a respiratory infection or an adenoidal condition leading them to articulate ‘f’ as ‘v’, the scribe could have drawn a meaningful word from his mental lexicon as follows:


Would we find this variant in our search for Staff?

  1. Eyeball: Unlikely, unless we had a linguistics degree or understood sound pairs;
  2. Index: No.
  3. Wildcard: No.
  4. Soundex: No. While Soundex does recognise that ‘f’ and ‘v’ are sound pairs and, accordingly, would bring up Staff and Stave in the same search, the coded ‘r’ means that Staff and Starve generate different Soundex codes.

Not all surname variants reflect meaningful words, of course. But, in the same way that jurors likes to have a motive if they are to convict a criminal, a scribe is more likely to have produced an odd variant if it made sense to him in one way or another. However, it is also important to remember that the type of meaningful error depends on the nature of the historical source we are using.

In Help! Why can’t I find my ancestor’s surname?, I discuss the importance of understanding the difference between an original source and a derivative source from the perspective of the general errors that are produced. In our surname searches, it is essential that we understand the difference between these types of sources from the perspective of the surname ‘errors’ we encounter. If we are dealing with an original source, the surname ‘errors’ mainly centre upon the mis-hearing of sounds. When we are dealing with a derivative source (an index or transcription, etc.), we are also dealing with the mis-reading of letters.

After we have broken down our surnames into letters and sounds (a strategy discussed in Help! Why can’t I find my ancestor’s surname?), we turn to Part 2 of the Help! book to find information about the individual letters in our surname of interest or to Part 3 to find information about the vowel sounds in our surname of interest. Most of us will have already worked out that the vowels in surnames are the most likely letters to experience changes. Sometimes, this involves a vowel sound change* while on other occasions it involves a mis-reading of the letter itself*.

Having separated Staff into its component parts, we go to Part 2 and look at the letter ‘A’. We find that lower-case ‘a’ can be misread as ‘u’. The table below lists some of the  letter substitutions for lower case ‘a’ along with an example of surname variants for the same person that show such a substitution; it also provides the reason for such a substitution. Tables for upper case and lower case letter substitutions are provided for each letter of the alphabet in the Help! book.

When ‘a’ is misinterpreted as ‘u’ (a common mistranscription), it gives us the meaningful word:


Would we find a surname written this way?

  1. Eyeball: Almost certainly.
  2. Index: No, because Sta.. and Stu.. are too far apart.
  3. Wildcard: Yes.
  4. Soundex: Yes.

At this point we have moved from looking at changes at the end of a surname to changes in the middle. Importantly, though, letter changes at the start of a surname create the greatest problems for surname searchers. Why?

  1. Eyeball: Because we focus a lot of our attention on the first letter of a surname when we are searching for our surnames of interest, so a surname that has a different first letter will be hard to spot.
  2. Index: Because we will not find a surname listed under a different first letter.
  3. Wildcard: Because we try to use the first letter of a surname as a bookend or, otherwise, the search produces too many surname choices.
  4. Soundex: Because most surname grouping algorithms begin their code with the first letter of the surname.

For the surname Staff, when we look at the table documenting possible capital ‘S’ substitutions (page 201 in Help! Why can’t I find my ancestor’s surname), we notice that ‘St’ is sometimes mis-transcribed as ‘H’. The variants Startup and Hartup are offered as examples (remember, these are real examples found for the same person). If a transcriber misreads ‘St’ as ‘H’ (which can happen when the ‘S’ lacks much of a curve), and if a transcriber also misreads ‘a’ as ‘u’ (because the original clerk did not ‘close’ the top of the ‘a’), the result can be:


This type of multiple letter mistranscription is often found in the database (I’ll discuss other examples in future newsletters). In this instance, it could easily happen because the result again represents a meaningful word. Would we find this variant in any of the four searches we have been discussing? Probably not.

To take this surname further into the realms of the almost unimaginable: think about the word calf or the surname Metcalf. The word calf rhymes with staff but contains a silent ‘l’*. So, if ‘St’ was mistranscribed as ‘H’, and if the first ‘f’ (because of scrappy writing) was mis-interpreted as silent ‘l’, the surname Staff could also be mis-written as the meaningful word:


Let’s now talk about boundary glides*. Imagine that our friend with the surname Staff had the given name James. When we are asked for our name, we don’t tend to say ‘James ………….. Staff’. We say, ‘JamesStaff’. Accordingly, the transcriber could conclude that the person was saying:

James Tarf

Taaffe is, in fact, a Welsh surname.

There are more suggestions I could offer about potential distortions to this particular surname; however, you are probably feeling daunted at the variety of possibilities. Don’t despair. The purpose of Help! Why can’t I find my ancestor’s surname? is to document the type of distortions that surnames can suffer and to show you how to find them. There is, in fact, a method to the seeming madness of most odd surname variants. Think about dart players attempting to hit a dart-board. If they miss, they usually hit a nearby ring. Surnames are similar. When a scribe ‘mis-heard’ a surname, he usually heard a ‘nearby’ sound*. When a transcriber ‘mis-writes’ a letter, he or she usually opts for something that looks similar*. Most surnames variants are therefore predictable when we have an understanding of the sounds and letters of surnames.

Hopefully, this information will have opened your eyes to the potential of finding odd variants for your ancestors’ surnames.

Interestingly, an attendee at the same genealogical conference mentioned that her ancestor’s surname Fonseca had been listed in one source as Fronseca. I asked if he was a convict who had arrived in New South Wales prior to the year 1828. When she replied that he was, I said that I had mentioned the Fonseca/Fransica example in my Help! book (with an explanation as to why the intrusive ‘r’ can be found and what other intrusive letters can be found). I also told her that I had found the man’s surname listed as Vauzaker. The latter variant was news to her!

Having reading this article, you can probably start working out why this odd variant occurred. It involves two sound pair exchanges (f/v and s/z), two letters that have the same sound (c/k), a mistranscription (n/u), and multiple vowel sounds that have different spellings. Most importantly, it is predictable when the surname analysis strategies in Help! are used.

So, go forth and surname hunt. Using these briefly discussed strategies alone, you will probably be amazed at what you will now be able to find.

More detailed information is included in Carol Baxter’s 310-page publication Help! Why can’t I find my ancestor’s surname? (2015).

You many also find Carol’s Surnames cheat sheet useful – click here to find out more.

Carol Baxter, the History Detective, is a Fellow of the Society of Australian Genealogists, an adjunct lecturer at the University of New England (NSW), and a professional writer and speaker. She has written three genealogical ‘how to’ books: Writing INTERESTING Family Histories (2010), Help! Historical and Genealogical Truth: How do I separate fact from fiction? (2015) and Help! Why can’t I find my ancestor’s surname? (2015). She also writes historical ‘true-crime’ thrillers. Her fifth such publication, Black Widow: the true story of Australia’s first female serial killer, will be published by Allen & Unwin in June 2015.

Carol Baxter Help Why Cant I Find my Ancestors Surname

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