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Making Names for Ourselves

By Daniel Hubbard | August 29, 2010

When I mentioned the reuse of the names of deceased children in a recent post (Geneanthropology), it got me thinking about naming patterns. As genealogical evidence goes, I wonder if evidence from naming patterns, onomastic evidence, isn’t both one of the most underutilized and most overly valued indications of relationship. It is valuable if given the proper modest weight. It can be a clue to increase your chances of identifying the correct records but sometimes it seems that people treat it as a guarantee.

Yet as tentative as those indications can be, sometimes names can give guidance to family ties. An odd first name matched with an uncommon surname might appear in more than one generation, though without any known connection between the individuals. That can certainly raise suspicions. It should raise suspicions. It is no guarantee.

A Patterned Mystery

In my own ancestry there is a family where every child received a surname as a middle name. In one case, the given name of a daughter was the same as her paternal grandmother’s name and that daughter’s middle name was that same grandmother’s maiden name. A son was given the first name of his paternal grandfather. In that case, with the son’s and the grandfather’s surname already being the same, the son was given another surname as a middle name. The meaning of that middle name remains unknown. In fact, aside from that one daughter, only one of the middle names has been explained. I found that a son was named for a nonrelative who was in the midst of his fifteen minutes of fame. Today, the name means nothing but then its origins would have been clear. Origins as clear as why little Benjamin still gets the middle name Franklin.

The mother of these children is a mere shadow in the records—without known parents, without a maiden name. Somewhere in the names of those children may be not just her maiden name but the actual full names of her parents, and yet those parents have never been found. One pattern that was sometimes followed, was to name the first born son for the paternal grandfather, the first born daughter for the maternal grandmother, second son for the maternal grandfather and second daughter for the paternal grandmother. The two children named for the father’s side in my case fit that pattern. Still maternal grandparents matching the first born daughter and second born son have never been found, even though the possible surnames are right there as grandchildren’s middle names. Either the pattern wasn’t followed or the right evidence has eluded many searches.

How Far Does Memory Stretch?

We all know that names run in families but for how long are their beginnings remembered? I’ve seen the same name passed on from father to son for at least five generations. You may have seen more. Does that long-ago son, five generations into a string of boys all given that name, ever learn how far back that name really stretches or is that something that we only learn now while poring over records? Is that something that such people never knew themselves? In my family there are a few odd names that popped up three generations after disappearing. Is it a coincidence? These children would have been named for great-great aunts and uncles that even their grandparents barely knew. People separated not just in time but who lived half a continent away. It ought to be coincidence and yet it all happened within two generations of the same family. Not often enough to give certainty but often enough to make me wonder if those children weren’t named as their parents thumbed through a family Bible. If that is what happened, where is that Bible now? I need to see it.

The Genealogists’ Children

I have to wonder about one more thing. Now, as genealogy becomes more and more popular, how stretched might our naming become? I am named for a great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side and a great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather on my father’s side. On my mother’s side there was a memory that had been preserved. On my father’s side, only genealogy made that possible.  Who in the future would dare think that my name hinted at those connections?

I have to say that I enjoy onomastic evidence. I suppose part of that is its very nature as being so full of uncertainty. When problems are easy, any pattern in names is something we barely notice and then we only find charming that we can see who was named for whom. When problems are really hard, any half developed pattern we can discern in the names we know may be the only faint whisper of a clue we have. That pattern may also be a mere figment of the imagination. Only more evidence will tell.

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Topics: Genealogy, Memory, Methods | 3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “Making Names for Ourselves”

  1. Naming Techniques « Chicago Family History Says:
    August 29th, 2010 at 11:33 am

    [...] Naming Conventions, Daniel Hubbard at Personal Past Meditations posted another great blog post, Making Names for Ourselves. Daniel discusses the usefulness of naming conventions; how they were used; how genealogists can [...]

  2. Greta Koehl Says:
    August 30th, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    I also love onomastic evidence and agree that while an unusual name is not proof, it is a strong indication. The names Manning and Victor have helped me out quite a bit for two of my lines. Just wish I had more ancestors with unusual names, or siblings with unusual names.

  3. Sheri Fenley Says:
    September 4th, 2010 at 2:41 am

    Onomastic evidence, used along with other indirect evidence was included in a proof argument I sent to DAR for a prospective member’s application (I am the chapter registrar). The application was verified and a note from the verifying genealogist saying that it was the proof argument that made the difference.

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