26 August 2010


    At almost every presentation, there is a person waiting for me afterwards with a sheet of paper. He or she has unfocused, bloodshot eyes, a furrowed forehead with permanently scrunched eyebrows, and a pathetic, pleading look in their crossed eyes. I know what is coming, and reach into my bag for the magnifier. It is "can-you-read-this-handwriting-I-have-been-trying-for-years-and-no-one-else-can-read-it-either" time. It is why I needed bifocals by my mid-thirties.  
     Illegible handwriting and creative spelling are the evil twins of genealogy. Even the most beautiful and elegant penmanship on old records can be impossible to decipher due to changes in styles and writing instruments. So what's a family historian to do?
     Luckily, a magnifier is not our only weapon. There are quite a few tricks that we family history detectives can use to break the code.
     The first trick is to look for other instances of the mystery letters in a word that is clear to you. If the first letter of the mystery word is formed the same as that in a very clear "Murphy" and looks completely different from the one beginning "Wexford," then you know you have an "M" and not a "W." Rather like playing one of those fill-in-the-blanks word games, isn't it?
     Rid your mind of its preconceptions. Sometimes, we have our own idea--or wish--of what  the word could be.
      A row of spikes can look like closed letters "e" and "l" but might be the letters "u" or "w."  so we get it into our heads that we are looking at a "ill" when the letters are "uel." Sometimes, the first impression of a the letters sticks in our minds.  Other times, someone offers a suggestion that we just can't shake out of our vision (another reason to ALWAYS look at an original records, and not someone else's transcription, whenever possible).
     Here are some ways to take a fresh and original look at the illegible scribble:
1. Change the size of the image. Sometimes minimizing the letter reveals a word. Magnifying an image can enable you to see the individual strokes of each letter. You might be better able to discern if a mark is a dot to an "i" or if it is just an errant ink splotch.
2. Remove preconceptions from your mind. If you thought you saw "Lenge" on a census entry, you will keep seeing "Lenge" and never see the true surname "Large." To prevent your mind from  filling in letters for you, try to read the word upside down, or flip it to its mirror image. These techniques are also helpful in trying to determine the individual letters.
3. Experiment with contrast. Turn the image into a negative one--white writing on a black background. If you have the computer skills, experiment with different photo sharpening and contrast tools. If you are working with a paper copy, try a colored plastic film, especially a yellow one. This type of film works great when placed over the image projected by microfilm viewers.
4. Add dots and crosses to letters containing loops and stick strokes.
     Don't forget to share the image with others. You might not want to tell them your guess at first, so that their mind is not vulnerable to suggestion.
     If you ever get the chance to take a class or buy a book about historical styles of handwriting, do so. Just seeing all the different styles will open your eyes and mind to diciphering all sorts of writing. And, don't forget to "roll the word off your tongue." Say your guesses out loud--your ears will help you make sense out of what your eyes may see as gibberish!
CYNDI'S LIST: links to sites about handwriting and script

NOTE: A local colleague of mine will be teaching genealogy classes on cruise ships next year, while I stay on dry land. I will pass along the link to these genealogical cruises should any readers with seafaring inclinations be interested: Worldwide Cruises