Last night a general question was presented to the board by one of it’s members which I took the liberty to answer. I’ve been asked to write a short article on the subject for our website and, perhaps, the Quarterly. The question was a simple enough one but one that many genealogists have struggled with. It is in regard to the consistency of spelling in family surnames and how to record the many spelling anomalies in our research. Specifically, in this question, was the use of prepositions in surnames and the proper way to use them. The question was as follows:
“I am cleaning up my family tree and one of the things I’m trying to do is be consistent with the spelling of names. I have a lot of DuBois names in my tree. Some are spelled du Bois, others Du Bois, some are duBois and others are DuBois. I also have families that begin with “de” and “von”. Does anyone know if there is a ‘rule’ about spelling these names? They sort differently if there is a space between them and end up with duplicates.”
This is an excellent question. In the end this will come down to personal preference but I’ll attempt to give some information to help each us decide which approach we would like to take individually.
In the past it was a very common practice to use the most common spelling of a surname found within documentation for a particular individual. Notations would be added to include additional spellings. Many still use this approach which has been popular for two primary reasons. First, it can be argued that the practice can help future researchers find the original source documentation. Of course, this shouldn’t be a problem if the tree is properly sourced already. The second reason is the visual nostalgia that it offers. It is really wonderful to see the evolution of a name as it changes and forms through time. The name Sheldon, as an example, can be seen even today as Sheldon, Shelden and Shelton fairly commonly. More ancient spellings vary a great deal more. If we go back just a few hundred years to 1679 we find “John Shelldin”, known to us as John 13 or John of South Kingston, listed among petitions to King Charles to provide aide to the residents of Narragansett Island. Go back further and we find in the recent research of cousin Kelly Wheaton, for our upcoming research trip to England in October, a “Geoffrey de Shlidone” in Devon in 1332 and, even earlier, we find the name Scelhadun in Derby in 1086.
It is the extremely wide range of these spellings that lead to a new point, which will lead to a more logical modern practice. It should be remembered that spelling was not entirely important to our ancestors, if they could spell at all. The English language didn’t have a set spelling of its lexicon until 1755 when Samuel Johnson wrote his Dictionary of the English Language. France was a bit earlier with their publication of the “Dictionnaire de l’Académie française” in 1687. German, on the other hand, was an extremely late bloomer in comparison. Prussian, only one of many Germanic Kingdom’s, didn’t receive its first spelling reform until 1901, based on a dictionary by Konrad Duden in 1880. Even later, Portugal didn’t standardize until 1911 and Brazil (or Brasil) didn’t follow suit until 1938.
The point here, after a too lengthy description, is that spelling was simply not important to our ancestors – so we should feel no obligation to stick to any one spelling over another. This is a happy revelation considering a modern dilemma. With our new use of large databases it is important that we use a standard spelling. As was mentioned in the question above, even the slightest change in spelling can cause havoc with our indexing. For this purpose it is recommended to pick a single spelling to use through your tree with detailed notations of alternate spellings accompanied by proper source citations. With names like Sheldon it is not to difficult to pick a common practice spelling – even though we do have some stubborn factions of the family that insist on “Shelden” haha. (Only with love.)
Now let’s get back to the point of prepositions in the original question. Only a few were mentioned, du, de and von. Others include di, da, le, les, la, las, verch, ap, and many others with various combinations. These words are not the names themselves and, therefore, are historically written in lower case. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci did not actually have a surname but was born in the town of Vinci. During his life he was also known as Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (son to Piero of Vinci). It has only been in recent generations that we have started to capitalize these prepositions. How you decide to use these will ultimately be a matter of personal preference. For me, I prefer to write these names as they were originally intended. Our questions specifically asked about the name “du Bois/duBois/DuBois/Du Bois”. The word “du” in French is a contraction of “de le” which means “of the”. The word Bois means wood. Not the material, but a small forested area or copse. So the earliest ancestors of this family where described as being “of the wood”, perhaps having a home further into the forest than others who lived in the village. As we’re using a preposition, I would personally write the name as “du Bois”.
I could go on and on with this subject by going into detail on various prepositions, such as the very specific use of “von” in Germanic names, or the unique surname traditions of Welsh, Scandinavia, Russia and Latin American families. Perhaps I can go into those in future articles. In the mean time, I hope this has been some help.