What's in a Name?
Usually the inspiration for a column comes from one of my dear reader's research
problems. This one came from a more closely related source, namely my middle
grandson, TJ, otherwise known as Treven Joseph.
I've been babysitting here in Phoenix, so the boys mom & dad could celebrate
their anniversary out of town. On the first night I tucked
this precious little one into bed. Walking away to turn out the light and close
the door, I said (in my most grandmotherly tone of voice) "I Love you sweetheart."
TJ looked up at me with his innocent, yet mischievous terrible-twos eyes and
interjected (in his most emphatic 2-year-old grandson voice) "I'm not
sweetheart, I am cutie patootie!"
You can imagine how this delighted my very soul and melted my knees, as I bent
to give him another kiss or two in a futile attempt to stifle my uncontrollable
So what does this have to do with genealogy? Well, you can bet that our
ancestors were just as adamant about what people should call them. Who cares
what it says on the christening record in the parish registry, passenger arrival
or census record? Names weren't standardized until the Social Security
Administration came into existence in the 20th century in the USA.
NICKNAMES Suppose your ancestor was named William Charles Smith. He could have
been called Smitty, Chuck, Charlie, Will, Willie and such. At least these
nicknames have some root in the true given names.
NO NAME BASIS FOR IT But that same ancestor could have been known to all the
world as Shorty (because of his height), Tiny (because of his size), or even
Spike (because of his basketball prowess.)
LOCAL COLLOQUIALISMS It wasn't uncommon during the 1800s in the South to refer
to a revered elderly male member of the community as Colonel though he may never
have set foot on a field of battle. Ol Myrt here even noticed in Time magazine a
few weeks ago that a woman had actually been honored as a Kentucky Colonel.
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT As a young child in the 1950s, we lived on Perkins Lane in
Seattle. One of our neighbors was Uncle Arnold. Neither he, nor his then quite
frightening wall-mounted hunting trophies have a place in our family tree. Mom
& Dad just had us call him that.
SPELLING MAY BE DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU'D EXPECT There is a pop-culture singers
name that sounds a lot like my favorite candy, M&Ms but has a distinctly
different spelling. Call me crazy, but I prefer the chocolate covered candies to
the singers lyrics. But that is just dating me, I guess.
NAMES THAT AREN'T REALLY NAMES I guess if you were famous, someone else would
compile your genealogy. For 4th great-grandchildren of The artist formerly known
as Prince at least there is a court record of the various name changes.
THAT WAS THEN THIS IS NOW - Identifying an ancestor by his or her nickname can
become difficult unless you lived during the same time period and were aware of
prevailing naming practices. In the nineteenth century, any kindly member of the
community could be called cousin without reference to a legitimate ancestral
Now, fast forward to the 20th century. Remember nicknames like Skip, Muffy,
& Bif? These weren't just extended vocabulary to challenge
graduates of the Dick & Jane books. People actually liked going by those
nicknames, I guess.
Take that into the 21st century and all bets are off. People have been reduced
to initials, which perhaps once meant something, but now merely facilitate IM
messages sent via pc and cell phones.
Oh well, how's a grandmother to keep up?
Happy family tree climbing!
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