Genealogy: What’s in a Name?

by Ashley Eder

Naming the next generation in your family tree can be intimidating and anxiety-inducing for some parents, including my husband and me. Do you pick a random name both parents can agree upon and hope your child grows into it, or do you wait until after the child is born to decide upon what you hope will be the perfect name based on a newborn’s personality and appearance? Do you honor an ancestor in your family tree by passing down a family name or break from tradition and name your child something completely new and original?

These were the questions my husband and I pondered while creating a suitable list of names for our unborn son. Having spent a significant amount of time researching and compiling our family trees, we decided to sort through our lineage in hopes of finding inspiration for the perfect name. We came across several intriguing and undeniably Italian names such as Liborio, Carmelo and Lorenzo. A few others sparked our interest, such as Aloysius, Mathias and Tunis, but none seemed to fit the bill. After encountering many common names in our family trees such as Henry, George, William, John and Joseph and having very common names ourselves, we decided a more unique name was in order. We also knew we wanted to honor our ancestry, but how could we incorporate both ideas into one name?

Years ago, I read a book called Man Made Language by Dale Spender, regarding the inherent “maleness” of language and how we classify and organize the world around us. This especially rings true when researching your genealogy, as you will notice how difficult it can be to track down female relatives if you are unaware of their maiden names. This book was the inspiration for retaining my maiden name after marriage; However, doing so left us with the conundrum of deciding which surname our child would use. Ultimately, we decided to continue the somewhat non-traditional use of my surname by assigning it as our child’s middle name and using my husband’s surname as his last name. So, having accomplished honoring our ancestors, we compiled a list of potential unique first names, narrowed down the list to our top three favorites and chose “The One” on the day our son was born!

So what’s really in a name? Apparently, a lot more than you would think when it comes to researching your genealogy, which is why I have created several tips and situations to look out for when exploring your ancestry to help improve the accuracy of your results.

1. Decipher Your Ancestor’s Formal Name as well as any Nicknames

Many of our ancestors are only known to us by their nicknames, which can make validating your genealogy research much more difficult. Make the effort to research common nicknames given for formal names. That way, you can search for historical records to confirm the validity of that particular ancestor. For example, Great Aunt Peggy may actually be Great Aunt Margaret.

2. Check the Spelling

You’ll likely encounter spelling variations of first names and even surnames among census records, passenger lists, correspondence between family members and vital records, especially since there were no hard and fast spelling rules prior to 1828 in the U.S. Don’t discredit records found too quickly just because they may be spelled differently. Also, be sure to view original documents instead of relying solely on the transcribed information, as the transcriptionist may have misread the name or recorded it incorrectly.

3. Double-Check Different People with the Same Name

It is important to make the distinction between different generations with the same name by comparing the dates of the records. Also, sometimes there is a formal pattern of passing down names through different generations, such as the oldest son named after the father with consecutive Roman numerals or using the same first name for all children of the same gender with a different middle name, as is the tradition in some areas of Germany.

4. Find Maiden Names

If you have a case of the disappearing female lineage, but have the full name of the groom, approximate date of the marriage and the state or county in which the marriage took place, find the marriage certificate to obtain the maiden name of your ancestor. If you don’t have enough information to search for a marriage certificate you can still search in family church documents for marriage, baptismal and christening records that may contain the maiden name. Veteran records including pension applications and legal documents such as probate records may also produce your ancestor’s maiden name.

As the last column in this series, it only seemed fitting to close out the topic by discussing the process of choosing the next generation’s name as I begin a completely new chapter in my life with the addition of our firstborn. All of my genealogy research has been done in hopes that one day I can pass down the information I’ve compiled to someone of the next generation who is just as passionate about our family history as I am and who will continue to fill in the gaps and lay the groundwork for future generations to come. The responsibility lies within each family to preserve their own history. Although technology has greatly improved record-keeping capabilities and the accuracy of names and dates, if we don’t record our own personal stories, then who will?

After all, there is more to our ancestors than just their names.

Ashley Eder developed a passion for genealogy while researching her own family tree and is always happy to discuss and help others delve into the process. Email her at ashleye@agingoutreachservices.com .