Breamlea, Victoria

Breamlea, Victoria

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Cumis, Cummis, Cumes, Comes, Cumas, Cummas, Symns, Sims, Syans, Sinns

What's in a name?

A hell of a lot if your ancestors are illiterate.

When I first started doing research into my family history, I didn't completely understand that different spellings of the same name could in fact be the same people.

The first time I encountered this genealogical fact was when I started researching my Clarke ancestors.  I found documents varied from CLARKE to CLARK and I was uncomfortable thinking that there was such a "big" discrepancy in the spelling. Whoa, was I wrong!

Spelling variations happen a lot, especially in the days when not everyone was literate.  I often imagine myself as them standing before a petty authority, unable to spell, telling them your name, perhaps being asked to spell it, and being unable to do so.  Imagine the frustration, embarrassment, the shame perhaps in your lack of education. Perhaps in some cases even being ridiculed. Resentment then, and anger.  How valuable would it be to be able to write your own name?

Imagine my ancestor Elizabeth Armstrong (spinster) who was illiterate, marrying a bachelor African man who was English illiterate, a man we call Sims Cummis.

Imagine. Here it is, your wedding day in 1864, and the Reverend is filling out your wedding certificate.  He asks you, "what is your name?"  Elizabeth Armstrong is easy enough a name to spell.  Most people would get a close approximation.

Sims on the other hand, is a different matter.  The Reverend was forced to rely solely on his phonetic translation of the syllables he heard.  What if Sims had a heavy African accent?  What if the Reverend had some hearing loss?  What if someone had a cold? What if the wedding was in a noisy place?  There are lots of reasons for different spellings. It's not as if Elizabeth or Sims could check.

In fact, the Reverend put down the name as SYMNS CUMIS.  I think he must have listened very hard and tried diligently to translate what he heard onto the page. That 'N' in the name is a subtlety overlooked by other petty officials.

We are reassured all these generations down the line that the spelling is a close approximation to the correct sound of his name, because the signed witness on the marriage certificate was William Cadwallader, Elizabeth's brother-in-law and the local Chewton Blacksmith.

If you look at my heading above, all those names I've listed are all the different ways Sims' name has been spelled on various documents filled out by various different officials.  That's not even including a couple of transcription errors I've caught.

Is it any wonder he started using the name William?

Historically yours,
Valerius Copernicus

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