I have learned to pay close attention to the names of individuals in my research as knowledge of naming conventions can be key to investigating a family’s genealogy. Frequently, the names provide valuable clues to the answers to my questions.
Individuals from differing cultures, time periods, religions and families were known to follow specific traditions and naming conventions. It’s important to know these naming conventions for genealogy research as accuracy of your conclusions can be adversely affected by misinterpreting names, titles, etc.
These practices could also change over time according to the practices of the day.
Below are some examples of naming practices I encountered in my research.
It’s very important to note that making assumptions in genealogy using only naming conventions is dangerous as these conventions were not followed by everyone. However, knowing naming conventions can be great help finding an ancestor as long as the other information matches to confirm the identity.
- Instead of surnames as we know them, the French in the 17th and 18th centuries routinely adopted nicknames or titles denoted by the word ‘dit’ or ‘dite’ before it. This title or nickname could have referred to any number of things including a descriptive term, location, family or property in France. This was the case for my ancestor, Pierre dit Laverdure, one of the Huguenots to settle in Acadia in the mid-17th century. I couldn’t find the translation for ‘Laverdure’, but I was able to find a modern translation for ‘verdure’ as follows:
a. The lush greenness of flourishing vegetation.
b. Vigorous greenery.
2. A fresh or flourishing condition: the verdure of childhood.
[Middle English, from Old French, from verd, green, from Latin viridis.]
My reasoning is that, based on this definition, there are several possibilities, including: he was from a lush, green, fertile area of France; he was involved in forest management or forestry; he was in a profession concerned with vegetation such as farming; the ‘fresh or flourishing condition’ referred to in the definition above could allude to his being ‘young’, ‘youthful’, ‘vigorous’, or ‘junior’ to someone.
- Giving all children of the same gender the same middle name, usually in honor of a relative or ancestor.
- Naming children after parents and grandparents (either given or middle name).
- After the death of a child, they frequently used the name for a sibling born later.
- Children were often given hyphenated first and middle names (i.e. Marie-Madeleine or Jean-Jacques), but they would frequently adopt one or the other for everyday use.
- French-Canadians and Metis in early days often followed the original French convention of using the prefix of ‘dit’ or ‘ditte’ as above.
- During and after the civil war, slaves frequently adopted the surname of their current or previous owner.
- 1st son was named after the father’s father.
- 2nd son was named after the mother’s father.
- 3rd son was named after the father.
- 4th son was named after the father’s eldest brother.
- 1st daughter was named after the mother’s mother.
- 2nd daughter was named after the father’s mother.
- 3rd daughter was named after the mother.
- 4th daughter was named after the mother’s eldest sister
UK, USA and Canada
- One or more children in a family, regardless of gender, were frequently given their mother’s maiden name as a middle name to carry that name on within the family. Infrequently, I have seen families where one or more of the children had the mother’s maiden name as a middle name.
- In Wales, individuals carried their father’s given name as a surname, preceded by a term signifying whether they were male or female. The son of a man named Rhys would use the surname ‘ap (or ab) Rhys’ and a daughter would use ‘ferch (or verch) Rhys’.
- In Scotland, children were usually given first names according to the following: first son is named after his father’s father; the second son is named after his mother’s father; the third son is named after his father; the first daughter is named after her mother’s mother; the second daughter is named after her father’s mother; and the third daughter is named after her mother.
- The surname used depended on the region the family came from. For the most part, in the Scottish highlands, the child’s surname was a combination of the prefix ‘Mc’ or ‘Mac’ followed by the given name or variation of the father (i.e. Jonathan McKenzie – the son of Kenneth). In the lowlands, the suffix ‘son’ was added to the given name of the father, as in Johnson, Robertson, Jacobson, etc.
- The Scottish were also known to take a surname from a location, occupation, and/or physical characteristic.
- Chinese immigrants frequently took on entirely new names – both given and surnames – in the language of the their new country. Sometimes they would choose names that sounded phonetically similar to their original Chinese names.
- Japanese names put surname first and given name last. However, names were frequently changed to follow the western convention of given name first and surname last when emigrating to the west.
- Roman Catholics frequently named their children after saints or choose names from the bible, especially in French-Canadian and latin families.
Scandinavia and Iceland
- The children adopted a modified version of the given name of the father as a surname, by adding ‘son’ at the end of the father’s given name. For example, in my husband’s family in Sweden, the name in America was Gummeson, originating with David Gummeson, who was the son of Gumme Svensson, who in turn was the son of Sven Hakansson. For female children, the same practice occurred, but the added suffix was either ‘dottir’ or ‘dotter’, as in Gummesdottir. This could frequently change upon immigration to the west to comply with western naming conventions.
- Families often adopted naming traditions such as the first-born son and/or daughter being named in some way after either a parent, grandparent or other close relative.
- Some changed their surname for personal or cultural reasons. In my own family on my father’s side, a male ancestor took exception to his surname of Turmel/Turmelle. In French tradition, the suffix ‘elle’ signifies the female gender. This gentleman had his surname legally changed to Turmaine and it’s carried on in this form to the present day. Other branches of the family retained the Turmel/Turmelle surname.
- Others changed their surnames for religious reasons. As seen in a recent episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, actress Helen Hunt discovered that an ancestor of hers had changed her name from Rafenberg to Roberts – most likely to escape anti-semitism, especially as she was a widow trying to support her family.