An Ancestor’s Given Name

The use of one, two or even three and four given names added to the family surname for a newborn baby is a fairly recent family tradition. The naming of a baby is not taken lightly, but rather is a matter of tradition, heritage, and respect to another person, relative, virtue, religion or institution.

Centuries ago when a person might be named based on the family occupation it became necessary to distinguish one person from another. A blacksmith was called ‘Smith’ and to differentiate his three sons, each needed another name. So developed Joseph Smith, Matthew Smith and John Smith; with those given names from an ancient pool of names.

Besides an occupation, family names could originate from a location, a physical attribute or skill. Again, another name would become necessary to designate one offspring of the family from another.

The most popular tradition was that of a namesake. A son was named for a father, a daughter for the mother. That included extended family members; a daughter named for an aunt or a grandmother.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, given names related to virtues or worthy merits were extremely popular. Especially for female babies, names like; Charity, Mercy, Hope and Thankful were very commonplace. That same practice was repeated during the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s in many countries with names like ‘Butterfly‘, ’Love’ or ‘Chastity.’

Using a family surname as a given name was very popular during the 18th, 19th and most of the 20th centuries. This tradition serves a genealogy researcher with possible clues to more distance ancestors. If your grandmother’s full name was Harriett Wesley Brown, that middle name of ’Wesley’ just might be a relative’s last name. The possibilities are worth investigating.

Inspirational heroes of the day at the birth of a child could have the parents select that as a given name. Many sons were named for U. S. presidents or members of the royal courts. This bit of historical information can help narrow in when an individual was born.

When gathering of information on ancestors, look if the same given names are repeated within the same family. It was a common practice to give the same names to a newborn of an earlier sibling after that child died young.

Variations for given names exist for countless reasons. Sometimes the parents had their own preferred way of spelling a name. Then, there is the possibility a registration clerk could have mistakenly misspelled the names. Plus an ancestor might have legally changed their name when they were an adult. All of these can make a difference in locating the right ancestor.
Even with legal given names, some ancestors were always known by nicknames. This can make the research problematical. If you thought your grandmother’s name was Gertrude and the only individual you find has the name Trudy, they could one and the same.

Become familiar with variations in the name and the different ways a given name can be spelled. Adelaide can also be spelled Adelayde and Mackenzie might be spelled Mckenzie, Makenzie, or Makenzi. Spellings years ago changed because people lacked a complete education and did not know how to spell various names.

In searching for your ancestors, review all the possibilities, find their full names and compare to other family members, including surnames. Variations in spellings do exist on all types of records and even within a family. Nicknames and name changes can be tricky, so watch for those deviations.

< Return To Learn