By Sheila Benedict

Contributing Writer

What’s in a name, or a surname? Those are two important questions when you are searching for your family.

Don’t let spelling bother you – many names are misspelled and that is no reason to think you have found the wrong family.

First, let’s look at the history of names, especially surnames. Many generations ago, there were no surnames – people had a given name and no one thought anything about it. Communities were small and one given name was enough.

Once communities began to grow, there might be a George the butcher, or Abe the short, Michael from Manchester, or any other distinguisher. However, history tells us that in about 1066, Norman barons brought surnames to England and over time they became widespread.

It was common to use occupations, places of birth, names of trees or bushes, musical instruments, names of various animals, and often religious names too. Not surprisingly, over time surnames were changed by individuals or families that, for whatever reason, felt the need to so do.

There are some standard naming patterns for first names commonly used: first-born son named for the father’s father, second son for the mother’s father, third son named after the father, fourth son after the father’s eldest brother. For daughters, the first born named after the mother’s mother, the second daughter after the father’s mother, third after the mother, and fourth after the mother’s eldest sister.

Having said that, nothing is carved in stone. For instance, if a young child died, it was common to use his or her name for the next child born. That would totally break the so-called pattern. In Scandinavian countries, people might have their own set of standards, as would other countries as well.

Today, none of that might apply. Couples could use a godparent, a business partner, a saint’s name, their favorite musician, or just a name they like.

The point is, there could naming order or disorder, and it is up to the genealogist to determine all of it. These are clues and they must always be followed.

My first daughter was named for a Greek goddess because my husband’s best friend was Greek. My second daughter was named for her paternal grandmother and my son was named for my husband’s godfather and his middle name for his godfather. So broke the standard chain. Finally, my mother told me she named me Sheila because it was a beautiful Irish name!

I am sure most, if not all, of you have name stories you could relate as well. The point is to take nothing for granted when tracking ancestors. There are many books that can give more historical information, and if you check the Internet you will no doubt find a whole list. Good luck!


Sheila Benedict is a local professional genealogist.