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Genealogy: What's in a Name?

Find information on how names have changed or stayed the same through the years.

In this article, you will find:

Creative spelling
First and middle names

Creative spelling

Genealogy: What's in a Name?

You may need to be creative to find other spellings of the surnames you are tracing. Think of the many ways a name could be pronounced and then think of the spellings. Say the surnames out loud and spell them phonetically. Look for records under any of those spellings. Could Stone be spelled Stoan? Charette could mutate to Shorett, Cayeaux to Coyer. To help you think of the spelling variants, examine the compilation of names from the 1790 census mentioned above. As you speak the names, you may get new ideas on how to spell the surnames you are researching.

Tree Tips

Ask your friends and associates how they would spell the surname you are tracing, based on its pronunciation. Ask children, who are much more phonetic and unbiased than adults. You may come up with some new ideas on variant spellings.

Pedigree Pitfalls

Never assume that the surname you are researching has stayed the same through the generations or even through a lifetime. How many times have you had to correct the spelling of your own name? Perhaps some of the misspellings will survive to someday confuse your descendants.

Names were often corrupted as immigrants interacted with their neighbors. Perhaps the individual giving information to the census taker was not your ancestor, but a neighbor who happened to be home when your ancestor wasn't. The census taker took the information the neighbor gave rather than revisiting your ancestor. And so Mr. Justice became Mr. Justis or Jean Christien became John Christian.

According to the 1850 census, Diana Drollinger's grandfather was born in North Carolina about 1800. A search of the North Carolina census and other records turned up no Drollinger/Drolinger/Drullinger families. Although census information is sometimes incorrect, other sources also suggested a North Carolina birthplace. The key to the puzzle was in the microfilmed pension records at the National Archives. Henry Drollinger states in his pension deposition that his name was Drollinger, pronounced Trollinger in the German style. A check of North Carolina records for Trollingers uncovered numerous families, and, eventually, Diana's great-grandparents.

Different Record, Different Spelling

The name might undergo several transformations before it takes the familiar form you know. When the immigrant Weir/Weer accumulated enough money to buy a house, he recorded the deed in the county clerk's office where he became Wiere. Weir/Weer/Wiere moved west, bought some land, and this time the clerk wrote Wear. Meanwhile, his account at the general store was under the name Ware, and that's the name the children learned to write when taught by the 18-year-old schoolmarm. So your grandfather is George Ware, but his grandfather was Samuel Weir.

Genie Jargon

Patronymics are names derived from a father's name or paternal side of the family. For example, if your father was named “Tom,” your surname might end up “Tom's Son” or “Tomson,” which in turn might turn into “Thompson.”

Naming Patterns

Patronymics were widely used in forming surnames. This was used to sort out the individuals in a community, such as Richard's son or Thomas's son.

Patronymics were particularly prevalent in the Scandinavian countries. At first it seems confusing to know that Mr. Jensen's sons all have the surname Ericssen. But as soon as you know that the surname is formed by adding sen/son to the first name, you can see how Eric Jensen's sons came to have the surname Ericssen. Daughters would have datter added to the father's first name, thus Eric Jensen's daughters would use Ericsdatter as their surname.

Other countries used the son suffix also, such as Williamson, Jameson, (also expressed as just Williams or James), but did not change the surname with every generation.

Other prefixes and suffixes were used to denote sons or daughters, among them, O, Ab or Ap; Mac or Mc; Fitz, ich or itch; ev, or off. The resulting names were sometimes altered with O'Brien becoming Obrien or Bryan, Ab Owen abridged to Bowen.

Tree Tips

When working on a family you know to be a specific religion or nationality, learn the naming patterns common to that group.

Religious Naming Customs

In some religions, it is customary to name children for dead relatives in a specific order. In other religions, it is the custom to name the first boy for the maternal grandfather and the first girl for the paternal grandmother. In others, it is the custom to name the first boy after his paternal grandfather and the first girl after her maternal grandmother.

Individual Naming Patterns

Some families devise a naming pattern of their own that persists for several generations. The first male in every family is named Henry, perhaps, or James. Each generation perpetuates the tradition. When there are three or four first cousins all named William Smith, it can be difficult to sort them out, especially if all remain in the area throughout their lives. It may also be the family custom to name a child the same name as an older sibling who died in infancy.

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