Family history: understanding your ancestors’ baby name choices

Naming a baby can give you clues to all sorts things about your ancestors. Time of birth [Christmas or Easter perhaps], religion, hobbies, the place of birth, for maternal or paternal grandparents, and for the royal family. Modern day babies may be named for the star of a hit television show, or the father’s favourite footballer. This style of naming choice is not new. Finn, meaning fair, or white, originates from Fionn mac Cumhaill [below], the mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology.

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Finn mac Cumhaill [illustration by Stephen Reid]

Names can be traced in families through the generations, not only first names but sometimes a mother’s maiden name too. Many second names amongst 19th century gentry were the mother’s maiden name, it was a way of keeping a surname alive if the male line died out. At least ten American presidents have their mother’s maiden name as a middle name. Sometimes this led to the use double-barrelled surnames; in the 18th and 19th centuries, the mothers of illegitimate children would give them their father’s full name and their own surname. So if one of your relatives from that time has a surname for a middle name, it is likely he was illegitimate.

Names go in and out of fashion, and this is another useful way of pinpointing lifestyle and culture. At the start of the 18th century, the upper class starting to use Latin names such as Horatio. They also Latinised English names, turning Joan into Joanna, Maude into Matilda, and Anne into Anna. These names then trickled down through the classes. It was at this time also that the upper classes started to use French girls’ names, often those which are feminised versions of boys’ names, for example, Jacqueline, Charlotte and Christine. The name Albert has been popular for 80 years, becoming popular in 1840 on the marriage of Princess Victoria to Prince Albert [below].

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Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha [portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter]

Until 1900, the most popular baby names remained static. In 1700, and again in 1850, the top ten included William, John, Thomas, Mary, Anne and Elizabeth. Fashions came and went according to the names chosen by famous people, who was in the news, and the current novel being read. So, Sir Walter Scott’s novels caused a rise in the choices of Waverley and Flora. Alice was popular after being chosen by Queen Victoria for her daughter. Clarissa has a long literary history, featuring as a name in the novels of Samuel Richardson, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf [below].

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Clarissa – popularised by Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘Mrs Dalloway’

Names can also give clues about geographical location of families, or a significant event in your ancestor’s life. If they disappear from records, it could be worth following a lead suggested by a name. Isla, for example, is named for the Scottish river Isla [below] and the Scottish island Islay. If this name appears in a previously-thought non-Scottish family, it could be worth searching records north of the border.

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Isla – a river near Keith [photo geograph.org.uk]

If you want to know more about the meaning of an ancestor’s first name, try the British Baby Names website which in its ‘Name Data’ tab has lists of names by year based on original records. Another useful site is Nameberry, its Namehunter feature allows you to search for a particular name and read its history.

This post is inspired by an article by Ed Dutton in the July 2017 issue of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ magazine. More details here.

If you want to read more about family history research, try these articles:-
20 top tips to find your missing ancestors
Using History Pin
Researching children’s homes

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