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I would expect names like Taylor, Poynting have "i" in place of actual "y", because they sound very similar to words "tailor" and "pointing". There's also Feynman, which some (not really credible source though) suggest to be "probably a poorly chosen spelling of the German/Yiddish Feinman".

Why is there "y" instead of "i"? Have the corresponding words been written with "y" some time ago, leaving the names unchanged when spelling changed, or maybe the people deliberately changed the spelling of their names to differ from the original words?

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Whether or not there's a logical explanation for the y, I know from personal experience that some people change name spellings "just because", and they specifically want it to stand out. –  Geobits Jun 11 at 17:37
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For Feynman, why is it a "poorly chosen spelling"? His ancestors were Jews from Russia and Poland, not Germany. The original Yiddish would have been spelled with Hebrew letters, while Cyrillic letters would have been used in Russia. Who is to say which English transliteration is "better"? It's spelled "Фейнман" in Cyrillic, and that would get transliterated "Feynman" by some systems of transliteration. It's the same letter (й) you find at the end of Tolstoy and Bolshoi. –  Peter Shor Jun 11 at 19:45
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This question appears to be off-topic because it is about the spellings of names rather than any aspect of English language or usage. –  James McLeod Jun 11 at 23:08
    
Or one could argue that it's a question about etymology. But it probably fits better into a linguistics SE. –  Matt Gutting Jun 12 at 1:18

1 Answer 1

In Middle English, "y" was a regular variant of vocalic "i". For example, in the Canterbury Tales:

And, for to festne his hood under his chyn,
He hadde of gold ywroght a curious pyn;
A love-knotte in the gretter ende ther was.
His heed was balled, that shoon as any glas,
And eek his face, as it hadde been enoynt.
He was a lord ful fat and in good poynt

(lines 195 - 200)

Here, "y" is used for "i" where we'd expect the "oi" digraph; but it's also used for "i" itself (lines 195 - 196). Similarly there's a variant "ay" of "ai". Again from the Tales:

At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,
And foughten for oure feith at Tramyssene
In lystes thries, and ay slayn his foo.
This ilke worthy knyght hadde been also
Somtyme with the lord of Palatye
Agayn another hethen in Turkye.

(lines 61 - 66) It's this "ay" for "ai" substitution which gives us the Middle English word "taylor" (which as you correctly deduce is in fact the word "tailor"), and the Modern English forename and surname "Taylor". (As a surname, this was an occupational name - i.e. given to a person who was a tailor by trade.)

After spelling got regularized in the 17th or so century (don't quote me on that :-) ), the common nouns went back to the "i" spelling, but names often stayed with the "y" spelling.

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