My Show: How Do You Think You Spell That?

I married into one of the easy names. Once in a blue moon, someone tries to spell it  “Linch,” the way my husband’s ancestors did in 18th-century Virginia, but basically, it’s easy. (To spell, not to research, which I realize is a whole other story.)

In contrast, my birth name is made for alternate spellings. I use what my great-great-grandfather settled upon in the 1870s. More likely, someone settled upon it for him, since the evidence is abundant that my immigrant ancestor was illiterate, signing his mark for important papers well into his old age. Starting in the 1872 West Troy directory, my branch spelled their surname “Haigney” and Haigneys they remained, thank God.

But research still must account for the alternate spellings random officials bestowed upon us. And with the spellings other Haigney families liked better.

Searching for possible extended family of my immigrant ancestor, I recently concluded an in-depth Troy city-directory search for the Haigney surname. I limited myself to reasonable variations, based on what I’ve encountered in 15+ years of research: Hagney, Heagney, Heaganey, Heagany, Hageny, Hagany, Haigney/Heigney/Haigeney/Heigeney and Hegney/Higney. Again, reasonable:  For sanity’s sake, I did not attempt to mind-meld with the sort of thinking that led a 1900 census enumerator to call my great-great-grandfather “Haggemy.” (Although if I saw one of these in the directory, of course I’d look hard at it.)

Two funny things about this name: On the one hand, it’s really very rare, however you spell it. For instance, when I searched for my great-great-grandfather in the Irish Family History Foundation’s baptisms database, I found only 10 Martin Haigneys (this includes variants) for all of Ireland in 1793-1911. It’s easy to get spoiled with searches like that.

On the other hand, the abundant spelling variations, and the freedom with which 19th-century Haigneys employed them, are a challenge to the confident pronouncement of my elders: “If they’re a Haigney, we must be related.”

Who is everyone, anyway? And what is our name? Sometimes after an intensive search, seeing all the variations play out, a surname starts looking like a funhouse mirror. How much of it belongs to me, and how much of it belongs to some 19th-century courthouse clerk’s imagination of how those Gaelic noises were supposed to look?

When I was a child, it seemed that my father and his siblings were the only Haigneys in the whole world. Then the Internet showed us that there were others, not as abundant as Smiths, certainly, but we no longer existed in a vacuum.

And then the genealogical databases expanded to give panoramic views of how fluid spelling was of this surname, how it varied not just from family to family, but changed within individual lifetimes. It was also apparent that not all Haigney families were created equal. Some U.S. groups, like mine, were poor immigrants who found opportunities through army service and industrial jobs. Others gravitated quickly toward white-collar employment like clerking and teaching.

What do these educational and economic differences mean? How do they play out with Haigneys in other parts of the world – the ones who stayed in Ireland, the ones who migrated to England and Australia? Why did my immigrant ancestor grow up in County Tipperary, when many accounts state with confidence that the Haigney surname is welded to County Tyrone? Are those Hagneys and Heaganys in the Troy directories closely connected to my West Troy Haigneys?

What, in short, is really in a name? It’s one of the background questions that keep my fascination with genealogy humming along.

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2 Comments on “My Show: How Do You Think You Spell That?”

  1. Linda Bonavita says:

    I love to know what’s in a name. I had a friend in fifth grade with the surname Bongiovani whose father than change it to Bennett for ease….loss of history there. I find many Bonavita’s in this area, only to find we’re not knowingly related….maybe we were in the “old” country. I sometimes meet these people and we go through first names of those who live in certain towns thinking there must be a link somewhere. Again, maybe in the “old” country. And since the Bonavita name means “good life” I’m encouraged to think my ancestor was recognized as a person that led such a life.

    Good post, Liz !


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