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Variant Spellings

When surnames first came into common usage, in the Middle Ages, they were often derived either from occupations (Smith, Cooper, Wright, etc.), relationships (Johnson, Larsson), or from placenames. Most people were not highly literate, so they spelled them phonetically. As the many dialects of Medieval Europe came to be codified, pronunciations changed, as did spellings. Variations of both pronunciation and spelling of family names came to be accepted as normal. Moreover, people probably changed spellings just to distinguish themselves from other branches of the same family.

Therefore, it is not too surprising that in this family line we find a Phillip Kithley (notice the "ley"), whose grandson John changed the spelling back to the traditional Keighley. Could it be that this change was to distance himself from his father Thomas, who came to America in 1642 as an indentured servant?

Add to this the problem of Census takers, tax collectors, and deed clerks who often put down names phonetically, and we see that the name was seldom spelled consistently until at least 1830, in some cases being spelled three different ways in one family unit. Ultimately, after a tenure of at least 300 years, the dominant "Keighley" spelling gave way to the more modern spellings "Keithley" and "Keathley", although some family members used such spellings as "Kethley" and "Keethley".

There are still, today, at least seven spellings extant, most of them clearly having roots in medieval England, although it is possible that some of the families had migrated to Germany (Keithley), Ireland (Keatley and Keightly), and other places before coming to America, perhaps for several generations.

Although most of the family names have evolved, in modern times, to Keithley, Keathley, and Keatly, there are exceptions. There are still Kiteley and Keightly families lurking around, both in America and abroad, especially, it seems, in Canada, Ireland and Australia.

Click here to see some of their information. These families are almost certainly related to the rest of us, although you may have to go back to the 13th century to find the link.

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