A Researcher's Guide to the

Renslow Family History

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The Spelling of the Name

© 1998, 2000 Lawrence B. Renslow

Ranslow and Renslow are historically the same name. This fact isn't immediately apparent to a modern reader because of the modern sense of the word, "name." Read on for an explanation.

Before the invention of writing, the sound of a name was the name. There was no written form, only the sound.

After the invention of writing and until fairly recent times, the sound of a name continued to be the name because writing didn't affect the lives of most people. Most people continued to use language vocally only, because they couldn't read and write.

During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the recording of vital statistics, military enrollments, and the like was done by clerks. During this period, illiteracy was widespread. A clerk would listen to a person say his name, and then write it the way it sounded. Different clerks would use different spellings for the same name. It was quite normal for a person's name to be recorded under a variety of spellings.

A clerk wouldn't ask most folks how to spell their names, since most of them couldn't read and write anyway. The question would probably evoke a smart alec reply like, "You're the educated one, you figure it out." A clerk was expected to write a name as he heard it.

For example, the surname of William and Bathsheba (Kelly) Ranslow was variously recorded as Ransleor, Renslow, and (probably) Ransley, and once, apparently, as Ransom!

During the Twentieth Century, partly because so many families moved to cities, the great majority of Americans were educated at least well enough to read and write their names. With this revolution in education, it became possible for government agencies and lenders to insist on consistent spelling of names. The phenomenon of widespread literacy along with the use of consistent spellings for names eventually brought about a profound change in what we think of when we use the word, "name."

Spelling replaced sound as the basic sense of what a name is. Formerly, two names were the same name if they were pronounced alike. Today, two names are the same if they're spelled alike, regardless of how they're pronounced.

While researching the Ranslow and Renslow family history, we have found numerous instances where the same individual was recorded as Ranslow in some instances and Renslow in others (and several other spelling variations as well). It seems clear that before about 1860, the difference between Ranslow and Renslow was in the ear of the clerk who was recording the name.

Ranslow seems to have been predominant in New England. As the family moved out of New England, mostly moving west, the Renslow spelling became predominant in most cases. This fact probably reflects the difference between New England speech and western speech.

Although the spelling of the two names is slightly different, the Ranslows and most Renslows are related, most of them being descendents of William and Bathsheba (Kelly) Ranslow.

Lawrence B. Renslow, Pleasanton, California, 1998 (Essay revised March 17, 2000)
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This page was last revised on April 2, 2005