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Cultural Naming Traditions - First Names

Finding the Hidden Clues in First Names: A Starter Guide

By Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG®

Genealogical research teaches us that every family is unique and, as family historians, we embrace the belief that every child within the family should be remembered for this uniqueness. When we consider what the greatest indicator of one’s individuality is, we often think of a person’s first name. It is what identifies and separates an individual from the rest of their family.

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But, of course, this is not always the case.

As original as a child’s forename might seem, it often offers clues into a family’s near and, sometimes, very distant past. Given names link generations of family through repetition and can be a powerful tool to push our research to greater depths. To shed an even brighter light on this research opportunity we must understand the influences behind naming traditions.

In this guide, we will take a look at just a sample of the cultural naming patterns for various regions and groups in Europe, a Colonial American tradition, as well as some Jewish traditions from the Middle East.

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This article is intended as a primer and just begins to cover the many and varied cultural naming traditions in these regions – and does not touch on the rest of the world, nor does it explore Native American or African American traditions. Take the time to explore your own family’s practices by reading the many wonderful resources found online for each geographic region, religion or culture.

Understanding Cultural Traditions Regarding First Names in Europe

Although it may seem obvious, when researching our ancestors we must always be aware of their heritage and any associated cultural traditions. This is especially true when examining naming patterns. Measure your decisions against what was practiced within specific societies and localities and venture beyond those only after you have tested the norm.

As an example, if it was highly common for every son in a region and time period to receive the first name of his father, this is a good place to start when building your own family tree. Your family many not have followed the norm, but it is a good idea to start there.

These not so obvious commonalities are just one of the many reasons it is important to get to know the locations your ancestors lived in as you research your family’s lines.

Naming patterns fulfilled several needs and desires of European life. They offered the comfort of repetition as well as the pride of carrying on family names. Patterns memorialized prominent loved ones within the family, but also those lost too soon. Our ancestors strongly believed that the memory of their predecessors would be carried through history if their forename was repeated across generations.

Nordic countries followed patronymic patterns. Within this practice, the father’s first name was given to the child, adding suffixes pertaining to his or her gender. Daughters were given “datter” or “dotter,” while sons were given “sen,” “son” or “sson.” This type of patterning offers family researchers an instant clue into the first name of the child’s father.

Strong similarities exist across nations, however patriarchal systems such as Italy’s employed a more male-dominated pattern. Use the following chart as a resource when forming hypotheses to identify parents. Although these are not always followed exactly, they are a valuable tool that should be applied to family research. Patterns may deviate slightly from these as research goes beyond the 1800s.

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European Naming Patterns

Ireland & Scotland

Sons

Daughters

Firstborn named after his paternal grandfather

Firstborn named after her maternal grandmother

Second-born named after his maternal grandfather

Second-born named after her paternal grandmother

Third-born named after his father

Third-born named after her mother

Fourth-born named after his uncle

Fourth-born named after her aunt

Germany

Sons

Daughters

Firstborn named after his paternal grandfather

Firstborn named after her maternal grandmother

Second-born named after his maternal grandfather

Second-born named after her paternal grandmother

Third-born named after his father

Third-born named after her mother

Fourth-born named after his father’s father’s father

Fourth-born named after her father’s father’s mother

Fifth-born named after his mother’s father’s father

Fifth-born named after her mother’s father’s mother

Italy

Sons

Daughters

Firstborn named after his paternal grandfather

Firstborn named after her paternal grandmother

Second-born named after his maternal grandfather

Second-born after her maternal grandmother

Third-born named after his father

Third-born named after her mother

Fourth-born named after his father’s father’s father

Fourth-born named after her father’s father’s mother

Denmark, Finland, Iceland & Sweden

Sons

Daughters

Add “son,” “sen” or “sson” to father’s name

Example: Hans Andersson

Add “datter” or “dotter” to father’s name

Example: Helena Andersdatter

Visit the following sites to learn more about Scandinavian, German, Irish and Italian naming patterns.

Review the wonderful resources that can be found at the Norwegian American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library and the Palatines to America German Genealogy Society as well.

You can also learn more about research in these regions in our online courses.

Be Aware That Some Names Come With a Twist

Naming patterns created some challenges and you might be surprised to find some strange happenings in your research. For example, in the smaller rural townlands of Ireland, they were sometimes overpopulated with men of the exact same name. So, to differentiate a father and son, sometimes additional features were added to these names within official land and tax records!

A man might be known as Red Hugh for the color of his hair, for instance, while his father was known simply as Hugh. This distinction would be included in the official record, as well as distinctions like occupation, mother’s maiden name, or “Sr.” and “Jr.”

In Scotland, the second son might have been given his mother’s maiden name as his middle name, thereby taking on his maternal grandfather’s full name as opposed to only his forename. Keep an eye out for this type of happening in your research.

Exploring Some Religious Naming Traditions

Knowing your ancestor’s religion can be critical to understanding his or her naming traditions as well. Within Roman Catholicism, children were named in honor of saints or biblical figures. Boys might be named Moses, Josiah, John, Mark, David, Joshua, Jeremiah or Luke. Girls might be named Hannah, Sarah, Rachel, Margaret, Ruth, or Rebecca.

In the 1900s, the Irish Catholic community named their daughters after the Virgin Mary. Therefore, many young women were called Mary Kate, Mary Ann or Mary Beth. Religious memorialization may also cross gender lines. It is not uncommon to memorialize Joseph by naming a daughter Josephine. So while a Jeremiah or Rachel in your tree may have little significance, often you can discover a reason why the name was given if you start looking.

Biblical names were used by ancestors of every Christian religion. Remember to review baptismal records to identify a child’s godparents. Children were sometimes named after godparents, especially in the 20th century.

Parents of the Jewish faith often utilized the naming patterns of the region the were living in. However, they often held strong traditions differentiating the memorialization of the living versus the dead. Sephardic Judaism allowed newborn children to be named after living relatives. It was also common practice to give the same ancestral name to a father and son, or a mother and daughter. Younger children within these families might also be named for aunts and uncles.

On the other hand, Ashkenazic Jews usually did not name children after living relatives. Children of this faith were not named after their parents unless the parent was deceased. As is true in some other cultures, many in the Jewish faith believe that a child named in honor of an ancestor would emulate the qualities of that beloved person. His or her soul would live on in this new child.

Some Jewish Naming Patterns

Sephardic Jews
of Spain, Portugal, Amsterdam & London

Sons

Daughters

Firstborn named after his paternal grandfather

Firstborn named after her paternal grandmother

Second-born named after his maternal grandfather

Second-born after her maternal grandmother

Third-born named after his father’s father’s father

Third-born named after her father’s mother’s mother

Fourth-born named after his mother’s father’s father

Fourth-born named after her mother’s mother’s mother

Ashkenazi Jews
of Bagdad & North Africa

Sons

Daughters

Firstborn named after his deceased paternal grandfather

Firstborn named after her deceased paternal grandmother

Second-born named after his deceased maternal grandfather

Second-born named after her deceased maternal grandmother

Third-born named after his deceased father’s father’s father

Third-born named after her deceased father’s mother’s mother

Fourth-born named after his deceased mother’s father’s father

Fourth-born named after her deceased mother’s mother’s mother[i]

Virtuous Monikers

Principled forenames were often given to children in the hopes that the child would live up to his or her name. Taken from the Bible and Puritan ideals, these Christian names were prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries.

As your tree grows farther back in time, especially within America or England, you may start to see names like Grace, Faith, Mercy, Charity, Patience and Prudence for girls. These names did cross genders, but males were usually bestowed with names like Comfort, Humble, Obedience and Deliverance.

Finding names such as these leads you directly to your ancestor’s religious affiliation. Puritans were Protestants, whose practice sought to reform England even further from Roman Catholicism.[ii]

Named-After Traditions

It may seem to lack a bit of creativity, but our ancestors did name their children after others within their local community. Local heroes would be forever memorialized when newborns from several families were named in their honor. Children were often bestowed with the full names of U.S. presidents or dignitaries, especially during the 1800s. Some families named children after benefactors or men who helped to finance their livelihoods.

As American society embraced popular culture in the 1900s, children were named after characters from books and movies, or named after writers and movie stars who were popular at the time. These given names identify interests that may otherwise be unknown to the family historian and can be particularly fascinating. All of these clues help to place the child within a precise time and place.

First Name Research Tips

  • Always review given names with patterns in mind. After you completely disprove the existence of a pattern, move on to other research strategies.
  • Use the assumption of naming patterns to form hypotheses to test within your family research.
  • If you see unique names or outliers, this may indicate that you are searching within the wrong family or locality. For example, if you have a Thaddeus in your tree, but cannot find another Thaddeus anywhere within the locality you believe his family lived, you may need to shift your research to places that do have men of this name. Or, of course, it could be that your ancestor was a bit of a rebel or traveler.
  • When searching forenames, use Latin variants if your ancestor was Roman Catholic. This trick may result in a greater quantity of records, especially those indexed with no anglicization.
  • Be aware that forenames changed through translation, especially if the ancestor was an immigrant. Names were simplified and anglicized, especially in the early 20th century. An example would be the change from Giovanni to John.
  • Decode nicknames. More often than not, nicknames were used to make a name more personal or casual. Nicknames also helped to differentiate between generations of same-named individuals. When you find a nickname such as Minnie or Nellie, use her birth order to identify the given name of the ancestor she was named after. Her name will most likely be the same.

Remember, behind every first name there is a story. Be the one to uncover it and you may unlock a great deal more about your family.

Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG® practices in Maryland. She is the owner of Be Rooted Genealogy, where she specializes in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ireland, and Scotland research.

[i] Edgar R. Samuel, “New Light on the Selection of Jewish Children’s Names,” Transactions & Miscellanies No. 23 (1969): 64-86; digital image of journal article, Jewish Historical Society of England (http://www.jstor.org/stable/29778787 : accessed October 25, 2020), images 1-23.

[ii] “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” USA.gov, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.html : accessed 25 October 2020), exhibitions, webpage.

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