Variant or Deviant? (A Respectable Post, Really)

To those who thought they were settling in for a post about a particularly troubled ancestor:

The headline refers to surname categorization. Sorry!

I am thinking of taking a one-name study course. I need to decide if I have the chops (and the desire, honestly) to launch an in-depth investigation of my birth surname. Said surname, Haigney, is Irish, but given some of the quizzical looks I got from Irish people in Ireland when I mentioned it to them, it doesn’t have the hail-fellow-well-met cachet of my marriage surname, Lynch.

One thing I was curious about was whether the Haigney surname would be a decent candidate for a one-name study, and it may well be, according to some of the guidelines put forth by the Guild Of One Name Studies.

A one-name study doesn’t exclude genealogical data, but it does go beyond strictly genealogical concerns to examine the characteristics of the name itself. For instance, does it come from a specific place, an occupation, a landmark? Where in the world does it occur? Are there significant clusters in specific places?

Also of interest: Is the surname a variant or a deviant? For the Guild, a variant is a true alternative to the surname’s primary spelling — a spelling that the surname’s bearers themselves actually used in signatures on wills or other documents, or a spelling that officials used consistently over a period of years. A deviant is more of a one-off, a clerical or transcription error. Obviously you don’t want to waste study time chasing a deviant spelling that may in fact be the product of one long-ago census-taker’s fevered imagination.

For my surname, I can easily see both situations occuring over the 150-year period I’ve been studying. The “Haigney” spelling seems to be a true variant of the primary spelling of “Heagney.” But there have been some wing-ding deviant spellings, such as the “Haggerny” under which my great-great-grandfather Martin is indexed in the 1900 U.S. federal census.

At the moment I think my primary motivation for a one-name study is curiosity. Before the Internet came along, the honest belief in my particular Haigney clan was that we were basically it. There were vague rumors of Haigneys who “weren’t our people” somewhere else on the East Coast of the United States, but who knew what those people were up to. We simply didn’t personally know any other Haigneys outside of our Brooklyn-based bunch. Beyond wondering whether a strange virus had eliminated all other Haigneys from Planet Earth, there didn’t seem to be much we could do about it.

Today, of course, a quick Google dispels the Haigney Armageddon theory in a couple of seconds. We are no longer our own familial version of I Am Legend. But where did the name originate, and where has it migrated? An interesting topic, I think. I’m just trying to decide if I have the time to do the job right.


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