How Do I Cite a Name?

 
 
 

21 February 2015

This is a question EE hears often. The word "cite," of course, implies exactness—whether we're citing a person, a source, or a name that appears in a source. 

On the other hand, as historical researchers, our use of names does not always involve citation, although we may think of it as such. Many times, our reference to a name follows a totally different rule than the one we'd follow if we were creating a reference note that includes a name. Here are some basic distinctions.

When writing narrative

If we pen an article, a book, a biographical sketch, etc., we adopt one consistent spelling for each person. Even if 50 known records spell that person's name in 89 different ways, we use our chosen spelling every time we refer to that person in our narrative. We should, of course, choose that spelling wisely. For example:

  • When historical people signed their own names, the spelling we find in the signature was likely to be consistent across time, even though the penmanship might tremor with age or illness. That spelling would be the logical one for us to adopt.
  • If the person changed his or her name at some stage or event in life, making consistency impossible, then we need to provide a bridge from the old name to the new at that point.
  • The transition is easiest when the individual was a female who changed her name at marriage. At her first appearance in our narrative, we might  introduce her as Margaret "Patsy" Jones, later the wife of John Smith, and then call her Patsy throughout.
  • If a male made a radical change in his name—to flee problems created under a birth name, perhaps—the problem is more complicated. The individual would typically be introduced as, say, Ralph Snerdly (aka Roger Sullivan). After that, we would discuss him as Ralph during his Ralph days. At the point of the name change, we would create a verbal bridge to connect the old identity with the new—as in, "Fleeing his old identity, Ralph joined the Texas Rangers as 'Roger Sullivan' and spent three decades bringing other miscreants to justice."  From that point forward, we'd refer to him as Roger. Or, we might continue to use his birthname with his new identity expressed as a nickname: Ralph "Roger" ... . 

(You did notice above, did you not, that nicknames are placed in quotation marks, following the so-called sense in which quotation marks are often used?)

When creating database entries

Consistency is fundamental for database entries. Switching an identity or even a spelling from one life stage to another is seldom an option in a database program, although it could be done in the edited version of a print out. (In fact, it should be standardized in a word-processing software, when working with a database that creates narrative rather than raw data.) The standard practice for a database is to adopt one consistent name or spelling and use it throughout data entry. That said, the transcription or abstract of the document, which we also store in our database, should preserve the exact spelling. Any discussions that we create in our database, relevant to that document, could cite the name exactly as it appears in the records, with quotation marks around it.  Example: "After Ralph fled Blue Moon County, the reward notice by which the governor offered a $500 reward for his apprehension, mistakenly identified him as 'Rafe' Snerdly."

When creating source identifications

Source citations—whether they are presented as footnotes or endnotes—call for exactness. Here, we are citing the source, not the person. If the source identifies the principal party as Ralph Sniveley, when we know it should be Ralph Snerdly, our citation does not change the name on the record to the "correct" spelling. To do so would, in many cases, cause problems in locating and retrieving the record. If we feel that citation needs to clarify the identity of the person, then we do that by adding the correction in square editorial brackets or by adding a comment to explain the error. For example:

  • 1850 U.S. census, Puppy Tree County, Hound Dog precinct, page 752, dwelling 23, family 25, for "inmate" Ralph Sniveley [Snerdly]. 

or

  • 1850 U.S. census, Puppy Tree County, Hound Dog precinct, page 752, dwelling 23, family 25, for "Ralph Sniveley ... inmate." Although the name appears as "Snively" on the image of the census page, the individual is actualy Ralph Snerdly. He is identifiable by ... ."

All of which might be summed up as common sense, right?

 


PHOTO CREDITS: "Hello, My Name Is Tag Front," PresenterMedia (http://www.presentermedia.com/index.php?target=closeup&id=11682&categoryid=132&maincat=clipart : downloaded 12 February 2015), image no. 11682; used under license.

Blog Term: 
rworthington
rworthington's picture
Hello, My Name Is

Dear Editor,

Thank you for this. I almost have it right, almost being key here.

If I see a record or document that has the given name, initial, surname, but I know from other records what the middle name is, is it appropriate to but the Initial followed by an open bracket, with the complete middle name, close bracket?

Hiram E[dmund] Smith

Thank you,

Russ

EE
EE's picture
Hmhh. For the user of your

Hmhh. For the user of your citation who understands what the square brackets mean, that would totally work. But it's also good to be "proactive" on the potential for misunderstanding.

Because so many people don't understand what square brackets represent, it's quite likely some would read that, delete the "confusing" brackets, and then cite the record in their own files as "Hiram Edmund Smith." To prevent that, your citation might present the name exactly the way it appeared in the record, with quotation marks around it, and then put in brackets the full name that you know for him--i.e., "Hiram E. Smith" [Hiram Edmund Smith].

 

The Editor

rworthington
rworthington's picture
Dear Editor,

Dear Editor,

Thank you. I really like that. I was thinking more of my own view of my Citation and not from a reader. It certainly makes sense.

Thank you,

Russ

EE
EE's picture
That's understandable, Russ.

That's understandable, Russ. The writer/reader issue is a great point. With citations—as with all forms of writing—we're more successful if we can write through the lenses of our readers.

The Editor

Skip Duett
Skip Duett's picture
Creating Source Identifications

Excellent post.  I have a question relating to the last category you covered. Occasionally, when searching the census on Ancestry.com, I will find my person of interest has been indexed incorrectly. Sometimes the handwriting is perhaps questionable but being familiar with the individual, family, and community, I read it differently than the indexer.  Sometimes the indexer just goofed.  Using your case, say the man is really Ralph Sniveley.  I look at the image and to me it clearly says that.  But it is indexed as Smedley.  Would you mention the index issue in the citation to facilitate others easily finding the correct entry?  Perhaps as:

  • 1850 U.S. census, Puppy Tree County, Hound Dog precinct, page 752, dwelling 23, family 25, for "inmate" Ralph Sniveley. Although the name appears as Sniveley on the image, it has been indexed as Smedley. 

Thanks!

Skip

EE
EE's picture
Yes, indeed, Skip.  EE 2.16

Yes, indeed, Skip.  EE 2.16 (p.50), 6.20 (p. 271), 9.30 (p. 455) and 13.35 (p. 761) cover this from different perspectives. EE's examples are a bit more terse, but your explanation would be clear and helpful.

 

The Editor

Jade
Jade's picture
Specific regional/local knowledge

Local pronunciations of names can be related to data that requires explanation.  "Rafe" would not be a "mistaken" spelling of "Ralph" if it were pronounced the same way as the first name of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Other person-names (and place-names) have local pronunciations.  "Caleb" could be pronounced as Kahlip or Kahleb or Kaylip or Kayleb.  Knowing this would enable recognizing one Caleb's death record under first name "Kale".

In place-names, Cairo, IL is pronounced "Kayro," and in Detroit Lahser Road is pronounced "Lasher."  So something heard might not agree with one's personal view of spelling.

Sometimes more brain flexibility is required than would be expected.

Thanks for this post,

 

Jade

EE
EE's picture
Good point, Jade.

Good point, Jade.

The Editor

Jade
Jade's picture
More name oddments

Not long after the above post I began working on a cousin-branch family.  A man born in Pennsylvania,  surnamed "Carney," married one of my cousins.  This spelling is in the marriage record, on his gravestone and is the name under which his estate records are filed.  Yet when his widow applied for letters of administration on his estate, her surname was as "Kearney," and all of their children appear to have used this spelling.  No remarriage of the widow is known before the estate matters were handled.

This reminds me of when I was a youngling, a girl about my age had a name "Carne" that was pronounced "Cune" (Kyoon).  This was confusing for many teachers on their first days . . . .

Having fun,

Jade

ACProctor
ACProctor's picture
Database comments

(transferred from facebook comments)

There is no reason -- other than naivety or laziness on the part of the designer -- for a relational database to only hold one name for a person, or for a place for that matter. A database can easily hold multiple names, and even put date ranges on them; not only is this approach of referencing a group by a single key normal, but it's not much more complex either.

But there is a related database issue about preserving the exact spelling. In some cases, it is the way a name was written rather than specifically its spelling. An example I come across frequently is Josh, with a superscript 'h'. This is a common short-hand for Joseph but is invariably recorded as Josh in database systems, and is hence incorrect. This is just one of my many arguments against the applicability of relational databases to genealogical/historical data.

Tony