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The Name Game
– George G. Morgan

The study of names fascinates me. I occasionally read articles in the newspaper about the most popular children's names these days. Over time, of course, the popular names change. Mary is not as popular today as Megan, and Keith is no longer as popular as Jason. The change in patterns and trends is nothing new; it has been going on for centuries.

As we research our families, we may find naming patterns and conventions that can help with our quests. In this week's "Along Those Lines . . ." let's discuss some of the patterns you might encounter in your genealogical research.

What's in a Name?
Names are important. They help define an individual's identity, both within the family unit and within the community. Sometimes a person's name has its origin in the family. Sometimes the name has religious significance. The name may also have an ethnic origin or connotation. And in still other cases, a child's name sometimes commemorates someone outside the family, even a public figure. Let's explore each of these instances.

Family Names
Perhaps the most prevalent name conventions are with regard to family. In some families, in some cultures, and/or in some locales, tradition dictates that children be named for members of past generations. Surnames in some Scandinavian countries are thus indicative of a child's parentage. The Swedish name Carl Johannson, for example, would indicate that Carl is the "son of Johann," while the name Ingrid Hendricksdotter would indicate that Ingrid is the daughter (dotter) of Hendricks. Differences in surname spellings in Scandinavia can indicate country of origin. The -son ending is typically Swedish, while -sen is usually Norwegian or Danish. Hence, the difference between the surnames Jenson and Jensen.

Peg Sweatt, one of the people who came on our genealogy cruise last month, reminded me of another naming pattern. In some groups, the following pattern has traditionally been used in naming the succession of children born to a family.

  • The first son is named for the father's father.
  • The second son is named for the mother's father.
  • The third son is named for the father.
  • The fourth son is named for the father's eldest brother.
  • The first daughter is named for the mother's mother.
  • The second daughter is named for the father's mother.
  • The third daughter is named for the mother.
  • The fourth daughter is named for the mother's eldest sister.

Of course, there are variations. Middle names may have been taken from a variety of sources, including Biblical characters, family surnames and maiden names, other less close relatives, and public figures. In any event, the naming patterns above may provide some clues about birth sequence in families where birth dates are unknown or in question.

Religious Names
Families with strong religious ties may have named their children after Biblical characters, saints, or other personages. As previously, religious names were often used in conjunction with other family names.

Catholic families have commonly used the names Joseph, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mary, Maria, or perhaps the name of a patron saint associated with the child's date of birth or some other religious event's commemoration. Examples might include Christopher, Jude, Lucia, Joan, or others. Protestant and Puritan families have used such names as Noah, Adam, Ezekial, Isaac, Isaiah, Ishmael, and others for boys. Girls' names have included Mary, Leah, Sarah, Prudence, Constance, Chastity, and other names that reflect Christian virtues. Jewish families have used names such as Jacob, Moses, Abraham, Elijah, Rebecca (or Rebekkah), and many others. The point is that you should study the religion of your ancestral families to understand their religious heritage and, by extension, their choice of names for each person.

Ethnic Names
Some children were named from their ethnic heritage. Native American names are prime examples of this, as are African Americans names. For example, slaves often used names from their ancestry in naming their children, thus preserving a portion of their unique cultural identity. And while a slaveholder may have called a slave child by a Christian name, slave families often continued using the child's ethnically based name among the slave community as a means of retaining identity. This can sometimes explain the discrepancy between slaves' recorded names (in public records) and the identities by which they became known after they were freed. It is another option to explore.

Famous Names
Naming children after famous people has also been common. It was a means to honor and commemorate an individual while, at the same time, using what my Grandmother Morgan used to call "a really good-sounding name."

In my own family there is a name—Green Berry Holder—that was reused as Green Berry Starnes. The name Green Berry is not unique. I find it used by many families. Always curious about it, I have researched its origin, thinking it must have been the name of some Revolutionary War officer. However, I have never found the origin, even though I have traced it back to the early-1700s in England.

Other names are easier to pin down, including George Washington Smith, Robert E. Lee Wilson, and Eleanor Roosevelt Jones. Often, though not always, there is a family story associated with why the parent(s) chose to name a child after a famous personage. Sometimes, though, it was just "a really good-sounding name."

Signing Out
There are no guarantees about family naming patterns, but in earlier decades and centuries, there were conventions within families, religious communities, and ethnic groups that, once understood, may help you in your research. The study of your family's origins and religious affiliations can help you fill in some blanks and locate "missing names" in an otherwise structured family pattern or in the sequencing of children where dates are unknown.

Remember, genealogical research is not just filling in names on a pedigree chart or family group sheet. It is the study of the entire family, its history, and its traditions. All of this brings your family back to life in a new way.

Happy Hunting!


George G. Morgan is a proud member of the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors, Inc. He would like to hear from you at, but due to the volume of e-mail received, he is unable to answer every message. Please note that he cannot assist you with your individual research. Visit George's Web site for information about speaking engagements. George is also the author of The Genealogy Forum on America Online.

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