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May 19, 2017

What's in a Name?

I've talked previously about surnames that changed (either deliberately or accidentally) over the years. This makes research into those families challenging! But what about first names?

Besides the usual nicknames (Bob=Robert, Jim=James, Cathy=Catherine) that we find as we research our ancestors, what other problems might we encounter along the path of our family tree?

How about ancestors with first names that have absolutely nothing to do with the name they were given at birth! These are people whose commonly used first name is not a derivative or nickname or anything other than some invented or pet name used by family and friends.

You can't assume that just because Grandpa was called Charlie that his actual name was Charles. Grandma might have been called Bobbie by her friends but does that mean her name at birth was Roberta? NO! Let me give you some actual examples in the family trees of my husband and myself.

My husband's grandfather was Charlie. Everyone called him that, friends and family alike. His wife called him Charlie. That was the name on their mailbox and in the local phone book. So of course we assumed his given name was Charles. But his birth registration found a few years ago showed that his actual first and middle names were Leon Thomas. How did he get the nickname Charlie? No one knows and he is no longer living to tell us. It's a family tree mystery that will likely never be solved.

My own grandmother was Dolly. As a child I assumed that was her given name but in reality her name was Ruth Ethel. When I asked her about her name she told me that when she was born she was so tiny that her mother thought she looked like a little doll. That was what her mother began calling her, and the name Dolly stuck with Grandma her whole life.

Other examples are my friend Bobbie whose brother could not pronounce her real name of Celia. He called her "baby" which sounded like "Bawby" and thus Bobbie was the name used by family and later her friends. It was many years before I learned her real name!

So don't get too stubborn about refusing to believe that the genealogy record you found for a man named Achilles is in fact your Belgium great grandfather Archie (another example from my husband's family tree) when all the facts fit! In this example, once we had the name Achilles pronounced by a native French speaker, we realized that it sounds like Aw-SHEE, which of course can easly become Archie. And thus my hubby's great grandfather Archie was indeed the man named Achilles baptised in Tielt Belgium in 1894.

Do you have examples of such names? Tell me about the names in your family tree, not common nicknames such as Jim for James, Bob for Robert, Bill for William, Cindy for Cynthia, etc., but pet names or invented names that you discovered for an elusive ancestor. Use the comment section here or write a post to your own blog to share your stories.


Anonymous said...

I have over a dozen Marys who were called Polly. Two of them are mother and daughter-in-law. Very confusing, especially since they are married to father and son, also with the same name.

I would love to find a resource with names and nicknames that aren't a derivative of the original name. Like Jack is for John, and Polly is for Mary...

As to unique nicknames, I have an Uncle Mac who's name is Raymond Rayford Scott. I found out the Mac comes from "Old MacDonald had a farm" one of his favorite songs as a toddler. His sister "Aunt Bill" was actually Dorine. The "Bill" came from a cap with a bill she always wore as a child.

And then there's my 2x great grandmother "Mittie". She was born in Tennessee while her father in the Civil War. She was named Sarah and called "Sallie". Her father was wounded and captured near Petersburg, VA, in June of 1864 and sent to a POW camp hospital in Elmira, NY. He was cared for by a nurse named Ida Lake, and when he was released he came home to add "Ida Lake" to his baby daughter's name. So now her name is Sarah "Sallie" Ida Lake Bryant. But at some point she became known as "Mittie." She is buried in Lexington, OK and Mittie is the name on her headstone.
Here's a link to with her story, written by her youngest daughter.

ScotSue said...

My great grandmother was named Maria on her birth certificate in 1859. But on her marriage certificate (1877) and later census returns, her name was given as Martha Maria. Her youngest sister Martha died at 4 months old, and Maria at six years old could hardly have remembered her. So why did she adopt Martha's name along with her own? I shall never know.

My father always signed his name John P. Weston, but he was always reticent about what the P stood for. Eventually he said Phllip - this was the 1950's and I thought this was very grand - like Prince Philip. The truth eventually came out - his middle name was Percy which he hated, especially when his brothers called him Perce.

I always knew my "to be" father- in-law as Jim, so when it came to filling in the form before my wedding at the Register Office, I gave his name as James. But when my mother-in-law a week before the wedding, saw the details up on the Register Office outside board, she was not happy - it turned ou that Jim's name was officially John, but he had always been called Jim to distinguish him from his father John. I had to go into the Register Office and arrange for a new form, so the details on the marriage certificate would be correct - so at least I did save future family historians from confusion!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

I'm loving these stories! ScotSue- your story of your dad not telling what the P stood for (then making up a name he liked better) made me chuckle. My grandmother signed everything as Olive L. McGinnis - but would not tell anyone what the L stood for. Even her sons did not know

When I did my research and found her birth certificate imagine my surprise to find out the L stood for "Lohilda" Poor grandmother! I suspect she didn't like that middle name at all.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

americansaga - love the stories. I do know that Sally is a common 19th century nickname for Sarah (don't know why) and that Polly is very common for Mary, and it goes way back in time.

Other nicknames seem to be picked up by the individual with no bearing on their actual name.

Jan Beattie said...

We can blame the British for some of those seemingly odd nickname derivatives. They love to rhyme so Robert = Rob = Bob. Mary = Molly = Polly. Margaret = Maggie = Meggie = Peggy, etc. My great-grandfather James's father died and his mother remarried. The man she married already had a son named James, so they called my great-grandfather "Pete". It took me years to figure out that he was actually James and not Peter!

Anonymous said...

So glad to know it is not just my family who had name issues. Let's see, there is my Great Aunt Kate, whose name I discovered is Tennie Lura, which she hated. Then there is my Aunt Sissie, whose name is Wilma; her sister Rutchie, whose name is Jessie Ruth--not too far off; or their sister Jackie, whose name is Arletha. My Great Uncle Pete was in fact Weldon.

The funniest change on a surname was one of my 3rd great-grandmothers, Malissa Dishroom. When I first added her to my tree, I thought could that seriously be her surname? It is engraved in nicely carved letters on a huge headstone in a Texas cemetery, which is too bad. When I traced her to her birthplace in Georgia, there was no one by that name, but there were folks name Disheroon. In fact, there is a Disheroon Mountain and a Disheroon lake in northern Georgia, where she was born. Eventually I traced that line to Michael and Joan/Jean Du Sharoone, which was likely "De Charon" in French. Poor Malissa went from a lovely French name to Dishroom!


Anonymous said...

I just recently found a Sarah that I think became Polly. My mother had no middle name, so gave herself the middle name of Grace. It was years before we knew it was not a legal name.

Unknown said...

In my tree, I have a 3 generations of women named Phoebe. In one census, I found Birdie Corbett, and I thought it could not be the correct family, but later I realized that it was, and that they used Birdie as a nickname because a phoebe is a songbird!


TravelGenee said...

So many people in my family on the maternal and paternal side are called Frances\Francis I need to be careful I don't attribute Frances/is if I see an F initial.

Kathy Jebbia said...

odd nickname: My mother has been known by family & friends all her life as "Tangie". She said it was short for Tangerine, given to her by her father since she was little/petite in size. Her birth name is Elvira, which she strongly disliked so never used.