A truism of research is that every transcription of a set of records introduces its own layer of mistakes. In precisely the same way, every individual absorbing and reporting family information is liable to omit or mistake something, conflating different events or mixing up individuals. Eventually errors like these can encrust even the most carefully guarded family story, like a multi-generational game of Chinese Whispers. The only real protection is the trusty defence of every genealogical researcher, deep and abiding scepticism. But it can also help to be aware of the most typical way distortions occur.
When someone speaks, the default expectation of a listener is that he or she will understand what is being said. This expectation is extremely difficult to defeat, and one result is that unfamiliar names are distorted to make them familiar. So “Grenham” is heard as Grennan or Grehan or Graham (repeatedly). After five generations, the place of origin of an Irish-American family mutates from “Carracastle” to “Kerry Castle”.
In Ireland itself a family of immigrant Italian origins, the Rolleris from Parma, all become O’Learys. This impulse, to tame and familiarise what is strange, is primarily responsible for the garbled surnames and place-names that plague research on the families of Irish emigrants. The notion that immigration officials at Ellis Island handed out fresh surnames to the new arrivals is a myth. What changed the names was the pressure to become familiar.
I recently came across a transcript of the lyrics of the wonderful Willie Dixon song, “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind“, and discovered the power of such wishful distortion. A couplet I had treasured for years – “If your brain is strong and your mind is broad/ You’ll have more women than a drinkin’ hog” – actually turned out to be “more women than a train can hold”.