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Orthography of Proper Names

WE are often perplexed to decide how the names of some of our eminent men ought to be written; and we find that they are even now written diversely. The truth is that our orthography was so long unsettled among us, that it appears by various documents of the times which I have seen, that persons were at a loss how to write their own names, and most certainly have written them variously. I have sometimes suspected that estates may have been lost, and descents confounded, by such uncertain and disagreeing signatures of the same person. In a late suit respecting the Duchess of Norfolk’s estate, one of the ancestors has his name printed Higden, while in the genealogy it appears Hickden. I think I have seen Ben Jonson’s name written by himself with an h; and Dryden made use of an i. I have seen an injunction to printers with the sign manual of Charles II. not to print Samuel Boteler esquire’s book or poem called Hudibras without his consent; but I do not know whether Butler thus wrote his name. As late as in 1660 a Dr. Crovne was at such a loss to have his name pronounced rightly, that he tried six different ways of writing it, as appears by printed hooks; Cron, Croon, Crovn, Crone, Croone, and Crovne; all which appear under his own hand, as he wrote it differently at different periods of his life. In the subscription book of the Royal Society, he writes W. Croone, but in his will at the Commons he signs W. Crovne. Ray the naturalist informs us in his Letters, p. 72, that he first wrote his name Wray, but afterwards omitted the W. Dr. Whitby, in books published by himself, writes his name sometimes Whiteby. And among the Harleian Manuscripts there is a large collection of letters, to which I have often referred, written between 1620 and 1630 by Joseph Mead; and yet in all his printed letters, and his works even within that period, it is spelt Mede; by which signature we recognise the name of a learned man better known to us: it was long before I discovered the letter-writer to have been this scholar. Oldys, in some curious manuscript memoirs of his family, has traced the family name through a great variety of changes, and sometimes it is at such variance, that the person indicated will not always appear to have belonged to the family. We saw recently an advertisement in the newspapers offering five thousand pounds to prove a marriage in the family of the Knevetts, which occurred about 1633. What most disconcerted the inquirer is their discovery that the family name was written in six or seven different ways; a circumstance which I have no doubt will be found in most family names in England. Fuller mentions that the name of Villers was spelt fourteen different ways in the deeds of that family.

I shall illustrate this subject by the history of the names of two of our most illustrious countrymen, Shakespeare and Rawleigh.

We all remember the day when a violent literary controversy was opened, nor is it yet closed, respecting the spelling of our poet’s name. One great editor persisted in his triumphant discovery, by printing Shaksspere, while another would only partially yield, Shakspeare; but all parties seemed willing to drop the usual and natural derivation of his name, in which we are surely warranted from a passage in a contemporary writer, who alludes by the name to a conceit of his own, of the martial spirit of the poet. The truth seems to be, then, that personal names were written by the ear, since the persons themselves did not attend to the accurate writing of their own names, which they changed sometimes capriciously and sometimes with anxious nicety. Our great poet’s name appears Shakspere in the register of Stratford church; it is Shakspeare in the body of his will, but that very instrument is indorsed Mr. Shackspere’s will. He himself has written his name in two different ways, Shakspeare and Shakspere. Mr. Colman says the poet’s name in his own county is pronounced with the first a short, which accounts for this mode of writing the name, and proves that the orthoepy rather than the orthography of a person’s name was most attended to: a very questionable and uncertain standard.

Another remarkable instance of this sort is the name of Sir Walter Rawley, which I am myself uncertain how to write, although I have discovered a fact which proves how it should be pronounced.

Rawley’s name was spelt by himself and by his contemporaries in all sorts of ways. We find it Ralegh, Raleigh, Rawleigh, Raweley, and Rawly; the last of which at least preserves its pronunciation. This great man, when young, appears to have subscribed his name “Walter Raweley of the Middle Temple” to a copy of verses, printed among others prefixed to a satire called the Steelglass, in George Gascoigne’s Works, 1576. Sir Walter was then a young student, and these verses, both by their spirit and signature, cannot fail to be his: however this matter is doubtful, for the critics have not met elsewhere with his name thus written. The orthoepy of the name of this great man I can establish by the following fact. When Sir Walter was first introduced to James I., on the king’s arrival in England, with whom, being united with an opposition party, he was no favourite, the Scottish monarch gave him this broad reception: “Rawly! Rawly! true enough, for I think of thee very Rawly mon!” There is also an enigma contained in a distich written by a lady of the times, which preserves the real pronunciation of the name of this extraordinary man:

“What’s bad for the stomach, and the word of dishonour,
  Is the name of the man whom the king will not honour.”

Thus our ancient personal names were written down by the ear at a period when we had no settled orthography; and even at a later period, not distant from our own times, some persons, it might be shown, have been equally puzzled how to write their names; witness the Thomsons, Thompsons; the Wartons, Whartons, &c.

Editor’s Notes

 § There are two footnotes in later editions of the Curiosities further to the spelling of Shakespeare:

The writer was Bancroft, who, in his Two Books of Epigrams, 1639, has the following addressed to the poet—
Thou hast so us’d thy pen, or shooke thy speare,
That poets startle, nor thy wit come neare.


There can be little doubt now, after a due consideration of evidence, that the proper way of spelling our great dramatist’s name is Shakespeare, in accordance with its signification; but there is good proof that the pronunciation of the first syllable was short and sharp, and the Warwickshire patois gave it the sound of Shaxpere. In the earliest entries of the name in legal records, it is written Schakespere; the name of the great dramatist’s father is entered in the Stratford corporation books in 1665 as John Shacksper. There are many varieties of spelling the name, but that is strictly in accordance with other instances of the looseness of spelling usual with writers of that era; as a general rule, the printed form of an author’s name seldom varied, and may be accepted as the correct one.