Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Name Game

In the process of researching my family history, I have discovered a definite pattern in the naming of children.

The first is a tendency to name children after parents, grandparents or some other close relative. Although, this is now more a disappearing trend, long ago people used to believe in honoring their fathers, mothers and other special relatives by naming their offspring after them. As a result in researching my geneaological lines and viewing others, I have seen the same names repeated over and over. For instance, the names, Mary, Lucy, John, and so on are replicated throughout our family tree.

Another pattern is the use of a surname as a given name. This has also occurred in my own family tree as well as others. The most common pattern is to assign a mother's surname as the child's given or first name. For example, we have a Boykin Harris, Chestnut Harris and Chestnut Jefferson in the family. The names Boykin and Chestnut are both originally surnames from their mothers' and in this case, fathers' lines. These children were actually the offspring of slaves and their given and surnames came from the slaveowners. However, this naming pattern was not only practice among the slave families but the slave master's families as well. For instance, the slave owner was Boykin Witherspoon. Well, the name Boykin was his mothers' maiden name. He was a cousin of the famed Mary Miller Boykin Chestnut who wrote the book, "Diary from Dixie and as you might have noticed, her name follows the same pattern. Boykin was Mary's mothers' maiden name and her married name, Chestnut by the way is the same family line from which my slave ancestors acquired their name from. This trend can actually be valuable in genealogy because a woman's maiden name can often be revealed by the given (first) name of her children.

Yet, another pattern, mostly noticed during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries is the use of initials as first names. For instance, my gg-grandfather was named Richard Clyde Lee but he mostly used R.C. Lee. His aunt was Mollie Burdite Banks Curry but she was known primarily as M.B. Banks Curry. This naming practice either by the parents or the individuals themselves may have come about as a representation of social status. Many thought that by utilizing initials only, they would be viewed as successful, important or rich since many successful and wealthy icons of the period including J.P. Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller were so named. As a result, many people duplicated this pattern because they thought by naming their children in a similar manner, it would almost guarantee their child becoming as successful as the affluent people of that era.

In German society, there was a first name and a calling name, so John Jacob would have that name on church records, deeds, etc., but for anything else, he would be known as Jacob.
There was also a naming order for families. This was observed especially with the Mennonites. The first two sons were named after the child's Grandfathers. It was usually the father's side first honored unless the Mother's father had died before the Father's father and the Father's father was still living. The females were named in like order. They believed in honoring their fathers and mothers. This naming order started to go out in the 1840's.

In genealogy we usually concentrate on surnames since they are the most important way of identifying people who are related. However, a surname is usually inherited and, while it may be changed, some form of it is usually retained. Given names are important too because they represent a voluntary choice by the parents or, sometimes, by an individual to either honor a relative or capture the essence of the child. A name is usually not given lightly. It represents thought and feelings and can be significant to the researcher.

I myself was named by father, Jewel Alphonso Burney, a variation of my great-grandmother's name, Caroline Knox Burney. Her name was Caroline, mine is Karen.

While certain names are popular in different areas in different times in history, the repetition could represent a pattern. Many cultures believe in honoring their elders and do so by naming children after them.

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