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What Would You Have Chosen for Your Name?

October 31, 2008

Over the past fifty years, we have seen a drastic change in the names parents are giving to their children. It is not uncommon for a new baby to be named for a place, a season, a plant or a flower, or even an inaminate object.

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned names like John, Jane, William, Joseph, and even Sue?

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, a few individuals passed on heritary surnames, but most of the population seemed to exist well without the use of more than one name. In early England, one's surname may have been the same as the location in which he lived. In later years, a man's surname may have been the same as the occupation in which he was engaged. As the number of people in the known world at the time grew, naming conventions changed from one name to two, and first or "given" names were repetitious in families.

Most genealogists will tell you that tracing one's family tree can be quite difficult, due in part to the repetitious nature of first names such as John, Mary, William, and Jane, which makes it almost impossible to tell one family member from another. Below you will see how this patronymic naming system worked until its demise in the United States sometime during the late 1800's.


First Son: Named for his paternal grandfather

Second son: Named for his maternal grandfather

Third son: Named for his father's paternal grandfather

Fourth son: Named for his mother's paternal grandfather

Fifth son: Named for his father's maternal grandfather

Sixth son: Named for his mother's maternal grandfather


First Daughter: Named for maternal grandmother

Second daughter: Named for paternal grandmother

Third daughter: Named for mother's maternal grandmother

Fourth daughter: Named for father's maternal grandmother

Fifth daughter: Named for mother's paternal grandmother

Sixth daughter: Named for father's paternal grandmother

As strange as the custom may seem today, it was also customary to name the next daughter or son born within a second marriage for the deceased husband or wife. If a father died before his child was born, a male child was often named for him. If a mother died in childbirth, the child, if it was a girl, was usually named for the mother. If a young child died, it was not uncommon for another child to be named for the child who had died prematurely.

It doesn't matter the century or the place, our names will remain of the utmost importance. It is unfortunate in some situations, because we did not get to choose our names.

What would you have named yourself if you had been given the choice?

722 - 5 - 0 - US
Janice Tracy is a native Mississippian who writes about genealogy and family history.  She writes two blogs, Mississippi Memories and Cemeteries of Dancing Rabbit Creek.