First-name basis: You wish.

The other day my second grader came home very excited after sharing a family tree chart with her classmates and teachers. The Spanish instructor even complimented my daughter on her grandma’s pretty set of Iberian names: Theresa Mercedes Cecelia.

Which made me giggle a bit, since the grandma in question (my mom) was the daughter of German immigrants.

First names, which you’d think would be basic signposts in figuring out ancestors, can tie you up in knots. They might make you guess at the wrong ethnicity; they might lead you on a wild goose chase to the wrong person. They might not be real first names at all.

Fortunately, first-name stories, while difficult to unravel, can make fantastic anecdotes. Here are some examples from my own tree:

My father-in-law: First came older brothers Floyd, Lloyd, Boyd and Coyd. And then came … Renzo Alton. (Please don’t tell me you saw that coming.) His mother wanted something different, and a local schoolteacher suggested Renzo. On his mail, he was R. A. Lynch. His family called him Al. I am not making any of this up, but I bet some future descendant will swear I must have been.

My dad: He was baptized Peter Jerome, but his mother never used his first name. She referred to him as Jerome, or “Sonny.” In the 1930 census my dad is listed as Jerome. As an adult, he used the name Peter. If you didn’t know the story, or didn’t weigh all the facts, you might assume the census taker missed him in 1930, or that perhaps there were two children, one named Jerome who died young, another named Peter who lived to adulthood.

My grandfather “Francie” Haigney: Well, actually, he’s Raymond Francis, but in the 1910 census, he’s Francie. If you didn’t know better, you might think the census taker got my grandpa’s gender wrong.

My mother’s name changes: She was baptized Therese Mercedes — Therese for St. Therese of Lisieux, and “Mercedes” in honor of the nun at the hospital who cared for my grandmother after the birth. Mom disliked Mercedes, and as an adult used her confirmation name, Cecelia, as her middle name. Also, she tended to spell her first name with an “a” instead of an “e”. So in a few places she’s Therese Mercedes, but more often she is Theresa Cecelia.

Those are some of my quirky naming stories, which are peculiar to the people and the circumstances. But I can think of two other common naming situations that might leave a researcher puzzled:

Nicknames: Some nickname logic has become blurred with the generations. “Liz” for “Elizabeth” is one thing, but what about “Lillie”? And not everyone immediately connects “Daisy” with Margaret, or “Mamie” with Mary.  Here’s a chart of common nicknames and their possible equivalents.

Americanizations: Just as with surnames, first names and first-naming conventions can change with immigration. Some translations are obvious, as with my German grandpa (Johann/John). But a trickier case is Grandpa’s sister Anna Kunigunde, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1907. In some records she is simply Kunigunde; she has also been listed as “Kuni.” And I also wouldn’t be surprised to find her in future as Anna, or even “Ann” or “Constance.” Here’s an article about immigrant name-changing.

My own name-changing stories, while amusing, also serve as a caution. Much as I’d like to think I’m on a first-name basis with my ancestors, I know better than to jump to any premature conclusions.

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6 Comments on “First-name basis: You wish.”

  1. Apple says:

    My great-grandmother was Rose Arazina Graham or Arazina Rose Graham. The order of the names varies on different records and family papers but I felt lucky to have both her first and last names. I found her in 1870 as Zena – OK a nickname for Arazina. 1880, 1910, 1920, 1930 she was listed as Rose. 1900 found her as Susan, surely a mistake by the census taker and I wrote it off as such and forgot about it. I never could find her and her parents on the 1860 census which was key to figuring out who her father was. Then I found a genealogy written by one of her daughters and sure enough, her name was Susan and I was finally able to locate the family in 1860 and 1850.

    • Thanks for such a great story. How did she end up as Susan — was it a derivative somehow of Arazina?

      When I want to stay awake at night I torture myself thinking of the potential breakthroughs I’m missing in the census because I’m sure they got the first name wrong.

      • Apple says:

        Susan was for her grandmother, Susannah. I have no idea why she dropped it. I don’t know why they picked Arazina but her sister was Xenia so maybe it was just a name of the times that didn’t catch on.

        I actually use three different first names so my descendants may have trouble tracking me! Charlotte and Charley they’ll probably figure out but I think Apple will leave them confused ;-)

  2. @lilacFestival: Yes, my grandfather was definitely of the assimilation generation, too — couldn’t wait to get his citizenship and never was very interested in writing home, either! I think only my grandmother ever called him Johann.

    @Diana: So lucky you were able to untangle the Emily/Jennie mystery. Since my dad’s story is second nature to me, it’s strange to think how mysterious his identity would look even 50 years from now — but it would.

  3. Those are some GREAT examples for us all to keep in mind! I had an Emily in one family who went by Jennie. It wasn’t until I found a card with “Emily J Saurer” on it that it even occured to me that Emily and Jennie were the same person. I made the mistake you mentioned of originally thinking that Emily, a name I found in one census but never again, must have died young.

  4. LilacFestival says:

    OK, here’s a few. My father was Donato, his brother was Pasquale. But while serving in the military during WWII, the U.S. government thought that Daniel and Pat were…well, better I guess, so their papers show their names listed that way. Since they were very much of the assimilation generation, the americanized names stuck.


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