Recent Posts

Read a Random Post



« | Main | »

Call me Ishmael

By Daniel Hubbard | May 26, 2013

I was just writing a short article about names in Sweden and it has gotten me thinking about the roles of names in general. What are our names for? That sounds like an easy question, doesn’t it? The most obvious role is as a sort of personal identity label. Names are the backbone of genealogy because they identify the individual. What other information do they contain? It seems they do other things as well. They send social signals, place a person within a larger context or directly tell us something about the person.

Names can contain many parts. Each adds different ingredients to the overall form and function of the name. What components go into a name are determined by culture and by law. In some times and places a patronymic was a must. Sometimes that and a given name was all one had. At other times and in other traditions, a surname might accompany the patronymic or replace it. A person’s name might include the name of their tribe, a significant event, a physical description, the names of ancestors, titles, honorifics; whatever that culture at that time needed to tell one person from another.

In some cultures names can remain fixed throughout life. In others they might change for certain special reasons. In others it is quite normal to be known by several names through out life. For all of these things, there are rules that govern the evolution of a person’s name.


A person’s full name, whatever the name’s component parts, is their identity label. Individual identity is the most important function of what we often call a “first name.” In many cultures it is not first, so a better term is “given name.” It is a name given to a child, usually by the parents, and it is the most personal part of a name. A child might have more than one given name and they might have some priority order. In the English speaking world, the first name is usually the one by which a person is known and the “middle name” is rarely used. In Sweden today, there is no fixed priority order and a person can pick any of their given names and use it without a legal name change.

In German records we can often find sibling after sibling with the same first name. That name was the name of a saint. It was the child’s spiritual name. Among males that saint’s name was very often Johan, making it nearly useless even outside the family. A whole village where every man and boy was called John would eventually have trouble functioning. The second name was the name by which the child was known. It was their rufnamen, their “call name.”


A person’s name can also describe them in some way. Many surnames originated with the description of an ancestor who is now lost in the distant past. That name might specify an occupation (Carpenter), a hair color (Brown), a place (Hill), stature (Small) or some other tidbit that described the person. Such names can come from more recent people in other cultures. When a Swede entered the army, he received a new and unique name. That name might describe him and might be used by his children. In those cultures it is possible to trace back to someone who you can tell was fast, clever or even annoying just from a name.


There is one piece of description that is so common in given names that it is easy to forget. Gender is often indicated by given name.

In places where patronymics were in use, the name might indicate whether the person who had it was the son or daughter of their father. In some cases a family name will end differently depending on whether or not the family member is male of female. Slavic names often behave this way. Latinized names can reflect gender as well. There are certainly other examples.


Genealogists and anyone who thinks about the term “family name” also realize that there can be another function to names as well. They can give some idea of family relationships. A child might inherit part of their name from their father, from their mother or from both. In societies with less strict naming rules, a person might choose to use a name that appears among their ancestors even if neither their father nor their mother used it.

Given names can also reflect ancestry. Children can be named for parents or grandparents, or even a more distant ancestor. Middle names can be an ancestral surname. Even a first name might be the mother’s maiden name, especially if she had no brothers to pass on the name to their progeny.

A patronymic will tell you the given name of a person’s father. Matronymics are rare but when you find one, it is telling you the given name of a person’s mother. Matronymics can occur in cases of illegitimacy or when the mother was of much higher status than the father.

There are a few cultures where parents are known by “teknonyms.” These are names that mean “father of…” of “mother of…” So parents are known by the names of their progeny. That might seem strange to us but as the father of three kids, I’m sure there are days when I am called so-and-so’s dad more often than I am called by my real name. Grade schools and Little League games seem to be the native habitat of teknonyms in modern America.

Women (and more rarely, men) who change surnames upon marriage or couples who take a combined surname, signal the relationship between them when they make that change.


Every time and place has its own rules and norms that govern these things. In Iceland today patronymics are required in almost all instances. From the patronymic one can determine if the person named is a son or a daughter. Thus name reflects gender.

There can be restrictions on the given names that are allowed simply because those are the names that the culture has used since time out of mind. Those names might always reflect gender. Johnny Cash’s song with the trick of naming a boy Sue to toughen him up might be impossible.

Does the concept of maiden name exist? If so, what happens to that name when a woman marries? Does it vanish from her name? Does it become a middle name? Does it become part of a combined surname? Is there a rule that requires one option over the others? Is there a spectrum of possibilities?

(to be continued)

Twitter It!

Topics: Genealogy | No Comments »

Twitter It!