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What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

January 6, 2021

What’s in a name? Naming patterns can be very helpful when researching ancestors, especially in Europe. When immigrants came to America, many would change their names to blend in more quickly, simplify the name so it was easier to pronounce, or shorten a long name. Check passenger lists (if they still exist) for the original names listed on these documents. Ancestry Library Edition and Family Search have passenger lists as does Ellis Island and Castle Garden, among others. Check out the Mid-Continent Public Library online catalog as well.

For many European countries (such as Ireland and Italy) the first-born son was named after the paternal grandfather, and the first-born daughter after the paternal grandmother. The second-born son was named after the maternal grandfather, and the second-born daughter after the maternal grandmother. The third-born son was named after the father, and the third-born daughter after the mother. This pattern did not always hold true; if a child died young, the name could be re-used on the next child of the same gender.

What you may find in Spanish-speaking countries are two surnames used—the paternal and maternal surnames names added to the given name. For example, Juan Jose Gonzalez y Sanchez, where Juan Jose is the given name, and Gonzalez is the paternal surname with Sanchez the maternal surname.

Patronymics or matronymics are common in some Scandinavian countries when the child’s surname is the given name of the father or mother. For example, Peter Jensen is the son of Jens Swensen. In Russia and Ukraine, the pattern can be seen in middle names. In Germany, children would receive a saint’s name as the first name and go by the second name. For example, Johann Wilhelm Bauer, where Johann is the saint’s name and Wilhelm as the name he went by.

So, what’s in a name? Quite a lot! Have you found these kind of naming conventions in your family tree?

Sheri V.
Midwest Genealogy Center

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