Surnames: Origins & Spellings
Learn about surname origins, etymology, spellings, transcription errors and issues in reading handwriting of COMBS-COOMBS surnames. Note that Research Reports generally use the spelling Combs, particularly for indexing, whenever the record itself shows a different spelling, we are faithful to the record.
Researchers can benefit from knowing different spellings of basic surname forms to not miss finding information as they conduct research. It can take many years of research to determine the main forms of a name from which others are or are not derived. It is our goal to make these distinctions. We will note these here as they are identified. We present the most common forms of the surname COMBS highlighted in bold. Optional spellings found in records that may or may not be derived from the common form are included in groups based on similarity of spelling or sound. In England the name spelled Combs is pronounced like Coombs. Hence this has serious consequences for how the name may be transcribed correctly or incorrectly in records. Keeping a copy of this list with you when researching records can be very useful.
The surname Combs was and is spelled in a variety of ways. Moreover, particularly in old-style writing, the letters “m” and “n”, and “s” and “y” could often be confused. Clerk &/or transcriber errors that we have seen are:
COLMBS, COMAR, COMB, COMBER, COMBY, COMBYS, COMBZ, COMBER, COMER, COMS, COMES, COOMBES, COOMBS, COOMER, COOMES, COOMS, CONE, CONES, COONS, COUMBS, CUMBER, CUMBERS, CUMER, AND EVEN KOMBER, KOMES, KOMBS, & KUMER.
There continues to be doubt as to whether Combs and McCombs were ever exchangeable, and/or whether the “Mac” was ever dropped from McCombs. (See Montgomery Co, VA for example; also see Combs' Histories (Add'l Source References), the 1942 letter of Frank Woodward Combs) Also quite possible would be, for example, John McCombs being transcribed as John M. Combs, or the reverse. When in doubt, the solution - always - is to examine a copy of the original record, and if correct, to seek additional corroborative records. Also note that although the Combs &c. Research Reports generally use the spelling Combs, particularly for indexing, whenever the record itself shows a different spelling, we are faithful to the record.
An interesting background on surname spellings is offered by UK researcher Mike Haken (whom we thank for his permission to reprint):
In our modern educated society, we take for granted that there is a right and wrong way to spell every word, including surnames. What most people do not realise is that this is a very modern phenomenon. Indeed, English spellings only really became gradually standardised with the expansion of education through the 18th and 19th centuries. Before that, the concept of correct and incorrect spelling was not really valid, as the language was recorded phonetically. This was a time when the vast majority of the population were illiterate, and thus for whom correct spelling was not an issue. Records that we depend on for genealogy were made by educated people who recorded what they heard as best they could. For example, a clerk in one parish might record the surname as Coombes because that was the way he had seen it spelt before, however the clerk in an adjacent parish two miles away might record the name of the brother of the first Coombes as Cooms because that is how it sounded. As both families became educated, they would take their spelling from the way the respective clerks spelled their name, and thus preserve both spellings. As to which is correct, the answer of course is both, as in reality they are one and the same.
With a phonetic writing system, imagine what happens as families move around the country, with clerks struggling to interpret accents they had never come across - even today most Americans struggle with a broad Yorkshire accent.
In general, the further back you go the number of spelling variations actually increases as you get further away from modern standardisation, so the notion that all the various Coombs spellings originate from one spelling is unlikely to be correct, and in any case would be only likely to happen if the original family were literate. There is a further point here, as it is often assumed that each individual surname must have a common root, which in truth is rarely the case.
With a common occupational name, like for example Smith, there will be hundreds of family origins all over the country. Similarly with a name like Coombes, which is a word originally used as a common geographical description, there will probably be many roots, and each of course could result in a different spelling. What we now regard as the English language is in reality anything but. Because of the widely different racial origins of different parts of the country, there were similarly widely different ways of speaking. What are now just accents, were up to recent years strong dialects, with unique words and expressions (still are in some parts of Yorkshire), and go a few hundred years further back and those dialects become even more distinct. The further back you go, the closer to the original linguistic roots you get, with not only different pronunciation and accent, but different words and different grammatical structures. Indeed, the only “standard” usage of language was in the educated class, and the further back you go even that had increasing regional variation.
It is generally held that modern English is actually most akin to the Essex dialect of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Prior to that time, almost all written documents were made in Latin, was just about standard throughout the country so that all educated men could understand no matter how they talked! The change to recording in “English” (better to say Essex!) really marked the beginning of the standardisation of modern English.
See Also Chapter XXIII, Philology Remote Origins of The Combes Genealogy…, whose author, Josiah H. Combs, held a Ph. D. in languages, with emphasis on the philology and etymology of words.