Side Study: What’s In A Name?

Some of us may recognize the phrase “What’s in a name” from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. 

This phrase “What’s in a name” also has meaning and practical use in genealogical research in the pursuit of ancestor’s names.

Have you ever noticed in your research there are clues to the names given to children by their parents?  If you haven’t yet, you likely will – especially as you go back further in time.  It may not be seen frequently today, but these naming traditions were very common in the past.  Traditions (or patterns) such as these can provide important clues:

First (or given) names:

The first-born son is given the same first name as the father.  Example: John Staples and his wife Mary name their first-born son John.

The first-born son is given the same first name as the father’s father.  Example:  John Staples (son of William Staples) and his wife Mary name their first-born son William.

The first-born son is given the same first name as the mother’s father.  Example:  John Staples and his wife Mary (maiden name Lee, daughter of James and Margaret Lee) name their first-born son James.

The first-born daughter is given the same first name as the mother.  Example: John Staples and his wife Mary name their first-born daughter Mary.

The first-born daughter is given the same first name as the mother’s mother.  Example: John Staples and his wife Mary (maiden name Lee, daughter of James and Margaret Lee) name their first-born daughter Margaret.

A daughter is given the female version of her father’s name.  Example: Johanna (or Joanna) Staples is named after her father John Staples; or Danielle is named after her father Daniel.

Of course, it’s certainly possible children other than the first-born could be named using these traditions.  But it is seen more frequently applied to first-born children.

Have you ever noticed children have been given the first name of a deceased sibling, or a deceased brother or sister of the child’s father or mother?  If the deceased were a sibling, this means that within a single family group, there would be two children with the same name but different birth dates. Typically, the deceased individual died at a very young age, such as at birth or sometime before, say, six years old. This was done to honor the name and memory of the deceased child, and to carry on the name.  This tradition is not common today.

Other traditions include giving first names to children naming them after their mother’s and/or father’s brothers and sisters; or aunts and uncles.  This means first names tend to get “recycled” and used over and over again, generation after generation.  While this tradition may have sentimental significance and be meaningful for the family unit at the time, it can present a challenge to genealogists later in years, trying to sort out who’s who, with so many closely-related family members having the same names.  Birth/marriage/death names, dates and locations become critically important to determine who’s who.

Middle (given) names:

The middle name of a child is given the maiden name of the mother. Example: John Staples and his wife Mary (maiden name Lee) name a male child John Lee Staples.

This tradition could just as easily be applied to a female child as well as a male child.  Example: John Staples and his wife Mary (maiden name Lee) name a female child Mary Lee Staples. It has been observed that this is sometimes done even if the maiden name of the wife has a name that “sounds generally male”.  Example: James Staples and his wife Sarah (maiden name Norman) name a female child Sarah Norman Staples.

The middle name of a male child is given the first name of the father’s father. Example:  John Staples (son of William Staples) and his wife Mary name their child John William Staples.

The middle name of a male child is given the first name of the mother’s father. Example:  John Staples and his wife Mary (maiden name Lee, daughter of James and Margaret Lee) name their child John James Staples.

Other traditions include giving middle names to children naming them after their mother’s and/or father’s brothers and sisters; or aunts and uncles. 

What’s in a name?  Given these traditions and being aware of these to be used as clues in your genealogical research, there could be a lot more in a name than meets the eye!

For further reading on this topic see:

https://www.genealogy.com/articles/research/35_donna.html

Frank Staples, Jr.

January 2019

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