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Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 3/10/2004

The Given Name Game

Last week's column focused on last names. This week we look at the names before the last name, typically referred to as given names. Like last week, we are concentrating on why these names may appear inconsistently in records, not the origin of the name itself.

It is worth noting that not everyone has a second given name, typically referred to as a “middle name.” My wife's great-grandfather on his World War II draft registration card is listed as Henry None Mortier. I somehow doubt his middle name was “None.”

Handwriting and Phonetic Difficulties
Last week's piece discussed how writing and speaking can create records problems. We will not repeat that discussion here. Those who missed last week's column can read it too.

This week, we'll take a look at some of the problems we may encounter with given names. A couple of illustrations from the 1880 census will serve to make the point.

Altje Schuster is enumerated as Attea in the 1880 census.
Altje Smith is enumerated as Ohthie Smith in the 1880 census.

Diminutives typically contain at least one sound from the original name and are usually (but not always) shortened versions of the original name. Will, Bill or Billy for William and Tom or Tommy for Thomas are fairly standard. Some diminutives are not as obvious to modern ears, such as Sally for Sarah.

Additional examples:

Margaret- Maggie, Marge, Peggy, etc.
Minerva- Minnie
Elizabeth- Eliza, Liza, Beth, Betty, etc.
Amelia- Millie
Sarah- Sally, Sadie, etc.

There are countless others. A diminutive name in one family may actually be a given name in another. And a person who is known as “Minnie” may not necessarily have a “real name” of Minerva (my great aunt Minnie was actually Wilhelmina).

Census records may list a person with their “real” name once and with a diminutive ten years later. It pays to compare ages and as many records as possible to reduce the chance that you conclude that a couple had more children than they actually did. A 16-year-old Nellie in 1870 may be the same as the 5-year-old Helen in 1860.

While it doesn't happen often, there are families where potential diminutives can cause other problems. Archibald and Lucinda Kile, Illinois settlers in the 1840s, had a daughter Lucinda and a daughter Lucina. Initially, I had thought one was simply a misspelling of the other, but they were two separate individuals (each with her own husband and family). Both could have easily used Lucy as a diminutive and left me very confused. There are diminutives that are somewhat standard, but there are always exceptions and occasionally regional variations.

Nicknames are different. These additional names are frequently based upon some type of personal characteristic, such as hair color, body size, or height. Or, they may come about for virtually any reason and have no connection that would be reasonably made (Yogi Berra's given name is actually Lawrence Peter). Since these names are not tied to the actual name, they are more problematic than diminutives. The good thing is that nicknames are less likely to be used in official records than are diminutives. However, there are always exceptions.

In American records, the most frequent translation of a name is into the English language. Some of these conversions are pretty standard:

Guillame becomes William
Andre becomes Andrew
Anders becomes Andrew
Juan becomes John
Francisco becomes Frank
Cesarine becomes Sarah

There are numerous others. Names that do not readily translate are more problematic. An Altje may be listed as a Ollie in one census and as Alice in another. Names that do not translate are more likely to be anglicized to whatever sounds “close.”

Here too, problems can be created by names that are different in the native language, but similar in sound. Garrelt and Feke Fecht had eight children born in Ostfriesland, Germany, between 1853 and 1873, including an Antke, an Anna, and an Antje. Fortunately only one of these individuals immigrated to America, as the names Antke and Antje are all frequently Anglicized to Anna.

Depending upon the time period, there might be records clearly explaining the Anglicization of the first name. My ancestor Jann Habben is listed in records as Jann or John. The executor of his estate explained to the probate judge that Jann used both names in official records. The 1930s naturalization for Panagiotis Verikios in Chicago indicates that he wanted to formally change his first name to Peter.

Non-English Conversions
Keep in mind that depending upon where your ancestor lived, Anglicization might not have been the problem. Did your Spanish ancestor Juan move to an area settled by mostly French speakers? If so, he might have become Jean instead of John. Those researching in areas of Europe that are multi-lingual encounter this problem frequently. My wife's Belgian ancestor might be listed under the Latin form of their name on their christening record, the French form on their marriage record, and the Dutch form on their entry in the burial register.

Christening Names
Did your ancestor have a name at his christening that he never used again during his life, or one that he only used on official records? Was there a middle name that he used more often? He might not have even used his original given name after his immigration to the United States.

All Had the Same First Name?
In some areas of Germany it was common practice to give all the sons the same first name and change the middle names. The middle names would be the names the individuals went by in everyday life, but the “real” names would be used in official records.

Reused Names
Many repeated names within a family were due to one child passing away at an early age. Reenste Amelings was born in Aurich-Oldenforf, Germany in 1772. She had three older siblings with the same name (each older sibling died before the next child was given the same name).

There are also less frequent situations where a name was used twice even though the first child did not die. As always, searching as many records as possible is excellent advice.

Could Not Decide Which Name?
My ancestor John Michael Trautvetter is listed in various records in the United States as:

Jahn (the German form of his first name)

If it seems that an alternate given name is the cause of your research brick wall, it is imperative that names, ages, and dates from as many possible records be compared. If the diminutive is somewhat nonstandard, this is even more crucial. It is also possible that what you think are two names for the same person are actually names for two separate people.

My Kentucky pioneer ancestor Sarah Sledd is named in several records after her husband's 1814 death. Sometimes she is Sally and sometimes she is Sarah. It takes putting all the records together, creating a chronology, looking at other family members with similar name, and thinking about the locations involved to determine that the Sally Sledd and Sarah Sledd I encountered in the records are one person and not two.

Is your ancestor hiding under a different first name? Keep these pointers in mind:

- Check out lists of common diminutives and nicknames.
- Determine how names from the ethnic area of origin were anglicized.
- Research as many records as possible.
- Make certain there are not two people with similar names.
- Clearly explain why you think the people with different names are actually the same person.

If only they had used ONE name their entire life, it would have made things so much easier.

“Changing Immigrant Names”
(From the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website)

A Listing of some 18th and 19th Century American Nicknames

Cyndi's List: Names

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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