Thursday, February 18, 2021

So, Just How DO You Spell That Name?


Some surnames have got it made. There isn't much wiggle room when it comes to spelling a name like Baker, bestowing a certain sense of research confidence. But Manouiloff? Oh, let me count the ways a name like that can be messed up.

When I first stumbled upon the possibility that my godmother Genia, only child of war refugees Michael and Lydia Melnitchenko, might have had an aunt who also immigrated from their interim residence in France, I thought I was on to the beginning of a productive search for at least one branch of her roots.

Not so. Just as unexpectedly as Alexandra Manouiloff appeared in records linked to the wandering Melnitchenkos, she vanished from the scene. First I found her in Marseilles. Then I spotted her in a passenger list, arriving in New York City. And not long after she filed her petition for naturalization, she died.

Oh, I checked all the usual places for further signs of her name in records, but without any success. That's when I took my search straight to the search engines and out from the confines of genealogical websites. There are, as you've realized from past searches here, many ways to find further information on surnames in general.

What could I find about the surname Manouiloff? Sadly, not much—but of what I did discover, it will take more than one post and, I promise you, a long slide down a rabbit hole as well.

Where would a surname like Manouiloff show up, you ask? I tried directing that question to the surname distribution site,, but was rewarded for my effort by a null set—plus a list of alternate spellings to try, many (but not all) of which led back to Russia.

Reconsidering my query, I thought maybe a suffix like "-off" didn't look very Russian. Perhaps it was more likely that Russians might end such a sound with "-ov." Furthermore, since the name, as we saw it, came from a refugee who had settled in France, for whom the middle syllable, spelled "oui," might actually sound like the French word for yes, "oui," we might need to reconsider that section of the surname as well. Once again trying to think like a Russian, perhaps the spelling might originally have been more like "uy"—thus, I settled on the Forebears alternate choice, "Manuylov."

That didn't tell me much.

Face it: Alexandra Manouiloff's surname could have been spelled in any of a kazillion ways, especially considering it had passed through an intermediary stop before arriving on American shores to be mangled by English-speaking bureaucrats.

In fact, as far as the French went, during the time period spanning the war-torn twentieth century, when Alexandra would have settled in Marseilles, one French genealogy site indicated that only one person was born with that surname at all. And whoever that was, it was someone who was born in Paris.

Now, keep in mind, all we have for Lydia's and Alexandra's addresses in France were for Marseilles, but if you recall Lydia's daughter's profession—a ballet dancer—we need to remember that Genia spent quite a bit of time in Paris receiving her training and then beginning her career. It is not beyond possibility that having an aunt in Paris to chaperone her activities when Lydia was not available would have made that arrangement more realistic.

Who might that one Manouiloff born in Paris have been? To Google I went for more information, and found references to one "J. Manouiloff" referenced as a contributor to a few research articles published in French science journals in the 1970s. Whether that J. Manouiloff was one and the same as a Joseph Manouiloff listed in a French genealogy site who has since died in Paris, I can't tell.

There were, of course, other Manouiloffs listed at both Ancestry and MyHeritage, but I can't at this point tell whether there was any connection. As Alexandra was listed as Lydia's sister, and I already have discovered Lydia's maiden name, we need to remember that Manouiloff was Alexandra's married name—a name useful for tracing her details in later life, but not helpful for the years before her arrival in France.

Before chasing after any conjecture about alternate spellings, though, there is one fascinating detail I stumbled across that we may as well stop to examine. I warn you: it will be a rabbit hole, and likely not of a type to equip us to find answers to our questions about Lydia's family, but if you are interested in Russian history, you may find it a fascinating detour. You see, embedded deep within the Russian history which was likely at the root of what caused the young Melnitchenkos to flee their homeland was another player's vignette in the Russian saga, someone who also happened to claim that very same name, spelled exactly the same way: Manouiloff.


  1. Unfortunately I am a big fan of rabbit holes! Let me spot one familiar name associated with something questionable that I can immediately rule out any familial relationship - I can spend hours, days and weeks investigating this unrelated person. I have a huge tree for a woman that I finally realized was using a pseudonym that was similar to my family ( a madam in a nearby town with a big scandal) and recently found a person with my husband's family name who was murdered in a big heartbreaking story. A week in and I can't find any attachment yet.

    1. I think by nature, we family historians are suckers for Story. In any guise.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...