What’s in a Name?

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By Whitney McGowan, FamilyLink.com, Inc.

Last night one of my friends had her eighth child (Yes, here in Utah, there are lots of BIG families)! No name had been previously selected for this new 7 pound 3 ounce baby, and as I am writing no name has been selected. However, the seven siblings and proud father have put forth many suggestions for a name. Unfortunately, none have quite fit. So, what’s in a name? Many people select a name for their children based on the etymology and history of the name. For example, the name “Melissa” means “bee” in Greek. This was the name of a nymph that cared for young Zeus in Greek mythology. It is also the name of the fairy who helps Rogero escape from the witch Alcina in Ludovico Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso (1516). As an English given name, Melissa has been used since the 18th century. The name “Whitney,” my name, comes from a surname which was originally derived from a place name meaning “white island” in Old English. (I was not named based on the etymology of my name!).

For those of you who are interested in knowing the meaning of your name, or for those of you who want to know the meaning of a possible name for your child, check out BehindTheName.com. This site provides the meaning and history of names from many languages and genres including English, Spanish, French, Arabic, , German, Indian, African, Italian, Irish, mythological, biblical, and more.

What does a name mean when you are searching for your ancestors? There are more than 1.6 million surnames in the United States. To add a little more confusion to the mix, the surname of your ancestor may have several variations. Some of your ancestors may have been known simply by their last name, or they may not have even known how to spell their name correctly!  Plus, believe it or not, surnames didn’t actually exist until about 1,000 years ago. Back then, there weren’t as many people, and first and last names were just not necessary.

In searching for your ancestors, pay attention to naming patterns and situations where the name of the family member has been repeated. For example, your great, great, great grandfather could have been named Samuel, and your great, great grandfather could also have been given the name of Samuel.

An additional help source comes from http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/genealogy/13006. In this article the author describes a common naming pattern prior to the 20th century.

1st son– father’s father
2nd son– mother’s father
3rd son– father
4th son– father’s oldest brother
5th son– father’s second oldest brother or mother’s oldest brother
1st daughter– mother’s mother
2nd daughter– father’s mother
3rd daughter– mother
4th daughter– mother’s oldest sister
5th daughter– mother’s second oldest sister or father’s oldest sister

Try to discover how your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents received their names. If you have children, take the time to write down the reason you chose the name of your child, and the meaning of the name.

One Response to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Edward A. Williams says:

    How does one find a person or persons when you know their last names but not their first names?
    I have two Great Uncles from Miami, Florida circa the 1920’s or 30’s named Eatman and George respectfully.

    I have spent hours and hours pouring through records on line gaining no results.


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