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Call me Ishmael part 2

By Daniel Hubbard | June 2, 2013

(continued from Call me Ishmael)

Ethnicity

Names almost automatically preserve information about ethnicity. A given name might be used in many countries but its precise form might be unique to an ethnic group. Surnames often have very local origins or are dependent on the language spoken by the people who created them. A “Smith” is probably of English origin. A “Schmidt” descends from a German-speaker who did the same kind of work.

Locality

Some names even tell the listener or reader what land a person owned. In Scandinavia and parts of Germany a man’s name might be just a given name followed by the name of his farm. If he changed farms, he changed names.

Familiarity

A name can also convey a sense of formality or familiarity. Daniel is more formal than Dan or Danny. The name Danny even hints that the person is a child.

Status

Honorifics like “Mr.,” “Dr.,” or “Goodwife,” in the sense that they help to identify a person, can be thought of as part of their name. In colonial America “Mr. James Smith” is quite possibly a different person from “James Smith.” Not every man had the standing to be referred to using “Mr.” The man who had that standing in one document may be a different person from the man who was not referred to that way in a different document.

In some cultures a person might change names to reflect a change in status. A Swedish man who was ordained into the ministry might form a new name using Latin or Greek, two languages that represented his advanced learning. Doing that signaled his status. If his family lost that status, they lost that name.

Occupation or position might also be a virtual part of someone’s name. High status posts might always be prepended to someone’s name. Alderman John Doe was probably not the same person as John Doe the rag collector. A position such as deacon might be used to discriminate between two individuals of the same name or simply to tell the world what his status was.

Clan

In Roman times a person’s name included a nomen gentile that identified the clan to which they belonged. The clan consisted of descendants of a common ancestor. Beyond a given name and the nomen gentile, a Roman might have a cognomen, which added a bit of description to the name. Sometimes this was a bit of a joke. Julius Caesar was famously balding but his cognomen, Caesar means “curly haired.” Later these became inherited surnames, so a Roman man had both a clan name and a surname that he would share with his father but not with all members of his clan.

 Rules

Rules for names aren’t part the names themselves but they are something to consider. A man named Anderson in America probably had a father by the name of Anderson. A man named Andersson in Scandinavia probably had a father with the given name Anders.

A German girl with the same name as her sister implies that they were named for the same saint and you need to learn their “call names” to tell one from the other. An English girl with the same given name as her older sister, implies that the older sister had died.

In colonial New England Goodman William Johnson and Mr. William Johnson were probably two different men.

Knowing the rules turns names into clues.

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