The Kay Family Association UK

When is a Kay not a Kay?

It is remarkable, for a surname as short as ours, just how many ways people have found of spelling it. Anyone who has researched the parish registers will know this, and there are plenty of cases where one person can appear with different spellings through his or her lifetime. This seems to have persisted well into the nineteenth century, as the 1841 census shows.

In an era of low literacy, the question “how to you spell your name?” is not helpful, so we’re likely to find that what’s recorded is going to be driven by local practise or even the personal preferences of whoever’s doing the recording – we see instances in the parish registers where the arrival of a new curate brings in a completely new spelling. Spelling is an attempt to render a sound phonetically, so the local accent is likely to have had an effect as well – contrast the way our name might be pronounced in the north of England with the East End of London, where it’s more likely to rhyme with ‘high’ than ‘hay’.

Accents evolve, and OP, or ‘original pronunciation’, is a major area of research. A ‘key’ (the thing we lock a door with) is pronounced to rhyme with ‘tea’ (the stuff we drink); but in the early nineteenth century, ‘tea’ was pronounced to rhyme with ‘tay’. And consider how we pronounce ‘eh’. That is why we’ve included the name ‘Key’ on these pages; our own DNA research has proved the common ancestry of the Keys and Kays of Yorkshire, so why not elsewhere too?

Spellings evolve too. As an example of this, according to Ancestry’s survey based on the 1891 census, 49% of the Kays in Yorkshire spelt their name ‘Kaye’. But our survey of the 1841 census shows that fifty years earlier, only 38% used ‘Kaye’. That’s quite a change.

We must also consider the glaring inconsistencies that can be spotted in the 1841 census. We can assume that many of the enumerators who had to walk an area knocking on doors were not exactly ecstatic about the job they’d been given, and some of them were plain careless. There was a family in Chorlton on Medlock where the father was spelt ‘Kay’ but the mother and children were ‘Key’. In one family in the Great Howard Street sub-district of Liverpool, father, mother and two sons were listed with the surname ‘Kay’. At the top of the next page, their nine month old baby was given the surname ‘McKaye’. Make what you want of that!

So we’ve included just about everything – the variants Kay, Kaye, Key, Keay and Cay are here, even ‘Quay’ that was found in Winwick in Lancashire and Wirral in Cheshire. Names beginning with ‘Mac’ and ‘Mc’ are excluded (except that baby), as is anything ending in ‘s’. In nineteenth century copperplate, it is sometimes hard to distinguish the letters ‘K’ and ‘H’, so the names ‘Kay’ and ‘Hay’ can look very similar. We’ve tried to be rigorous here, and have erred on the side of caution, but hopefully we’ve got just about everybody.