Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It's All In The Name

Our names are important - they belong to us alone and make us unique. At least, that was once the case in a less populated universe.  Interestingly, naming conventions have evolved over centuries based on geography, ethnicity, and cultural and societal norms. In early England, one’s surname was usually a locational name, designating the place where a man held his land or where he already lived. After the Norman conquest of 1066, a few individuals passed on hereditary surnames, but most of the population seemed to exist fairly well without the use of more than one name. As the number of people in a specific geographic area grew, surnames emerged out of labels that distinguished an individual’s occupation or trade, such as baker, cook, cooper, and porter. As the population increased, the use of surnames to denote heredity increased in popularity, and by the14th century, most of the population had acquired a second name.

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, families used the patronymic naming system to name their male children. In other words, a child’s personal name, consisting most often of a first name and a middle name, was the same as that of an earlier male ancestor. Generally speaking, firstborn sons commonly were named for the child’s father or grandfather. Female children also were named using a similar system, meaning they were named for female ancestors or another close family member. The primary purpose of each naming concept was to convey lineage.  But more often than not, offspring born to more than one sibling bore similar names, and the practice created confusion not only in extended families, but to family history researchers as they attempted decades later to develop a family tree. By the turn of the nineteenth century, most American families had discarded these naming conventions, although the custom remains in place today in a number of locations throughout the world.

When I first attempted to unravel the traditional names given to sons and daughters of my own ancestors a number of years ago, an article published in "The Genealogical Helper Magazine” explaining naming conventions proved helpful to me. According to the article, a family’s oldest son was named for his paternal grandfather.  Second and third sons were named for the maternal grandfather and the father’s paternal grandfather, respectively. A fourth son was named for his mother’s paternal grandfather, a fifth son was named for his father’s maternal grandfather, and a sixth son was named for his mother’s maternal grandfather. Daughters were named in a similar fashion, with the first daughter born named for her maternal grandmother and the second daughter named for her paternal grandmother. A third daughter born to the family was named for her mother’s maternal grandmother, and fourth and fifth daughters were named for the mother’s paternal grandmother and the father’s paternal grandmother, respectively.  If a sixth daughter was born to the couple, her name was predetermined to be the name of her father’s maternal grandmother. The entire concept invited duplicity of names and general confusion.

As strange as the convention may seem to us today, it was customary, also, to name the next daughter or son born within a second marriage for the deceased husband or wife. If a father died before a male child was born, the infant was named for his deceased father.  Similarly, if a mother died in childbirth and the child was a girl, the father named his infant daughter for his deceased wife.

Although history tells us that our personal names evolved for the simple purpose of establishing family lineage or for identifying heredity, names have become vital links needed to function in today’s social and economic settings. But our names are much more.....they link us to our families, past and present, and they tie us to future generations to come.  As the saying goes, “It’s all in the name.”