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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Good and the Bad of Names, Dates and Places -- Part Two More about names

There are several other important topics dealing with the way genealogists record names in their genealogical database programs including online family trees. Here is a list of some of the categories of issues associated with entering names:

  • abbreviations
  • initials 
  • nicknames
  • spelling variations
  • capitalization
  • scripts
  • name changes
  • titles
  • other words

If you think about it, the rules that I mentioned in my last post on this subject will clarify and regularize most of the these issues also. I will repeat the rules for convenience here:
  • All names should be entered as they are spoken in whatever language they were originally given.
  • All names should be recorded as they were given at the time of birth with variations in notes or alternative name sections.
  • Use normal (i.e. upper and lower case) transcriptions.
  • Use all specific characters (now generally available in all computer operating systems) used in the original languages.
  • Do not use Mr., Mrs. or other such designations, titles, etc. unless they were part of the name at the time of birth. 
  • Do not use abbreviations unless they were actually part of the name at birth.
Let's look at each of the above categories one-by-one:

In genealogy there are two main sources when we see names abbreviated. One of those consists of abbreviations used by the people entering names in original records. If you have done any research in original documents such as deeds, parish registers and such, you will very soon learn that early manuscripts contain a lot of "standard" abbreviations. Here is a link to a list of common English language genealogy abbreviations from It was also very common to abbreviate names. Here is another link to a GenealogyInTime Magazine list of common English name abbreviations

Now, should we record the name as it is found in the original record or take artistic license and expand the abbreviation into its equivalent? You will note that my rule says that names should be recorded as they were given at the time of birth. What if the birth record has the name as an abbreviation? I think the rule still stands. You record what the original document says. For example, if the child's name was William and it was recorded as Wm. then your records should reflect what was in the record. Your notes and alternative names etc. can reflect the fact that Wm is a common abbreviation for William, but unless you find another record showing the name spelled out, you should not go beyond the original. Why is this? Suppose you record the name as William and someone else records the name as Wm? Are they automatically to be assumed to be the same person? This type of issue lies at the heart of many of the duplicates in online family trees and other places. Record the name as it is found in the original documents. Expand abbreviations in your notes but record the abbreviation until you find a source showing the full name. 

The other source of abbreviations came from the limitations of handwritten genealogy forms and other forms. How many times have you tried to fill out a form to find out that the originator of the form did not leave enough room for you to fill in the entire name? Hence, the origin of many abbreviations. I will come back to this issue when I discuss place names. 

The use of initials could be considered a sub-set of abbreviations except for one rather unique practice, that is giving children an initial for a name. I have an uncle whose name is Rollin C Tanner. The "C"doesn't stand for anything. His middle name is "C." This practice became fairly common during the major wars when soldiers in the United States were "required" to have a middle name.  In other words, the Army would not accept the form with the middle initial left blank. In some cases, the Army would require the soldier to put "NMI" in the empty field or "No Middle Initial." Now, I have actually seen genealogists who have recorded the name of their ancestor with the middle name of NMI. 

On the other hand, giving only initials for the names of an ancestor usually indicates a failure to do enough research. It is an easy, lazy practice. Unless you confirm that the baby was given the name with an initial at birth, I would suggest that all the single letter initials in your database are an open invitation to do some more research.

By now, you can probably predict my answer to the question of how to record nicknames. If the name was given at birth, it is not a nickname. If the child's name was Margaret and she was always called Maggie, Meg, Peg, Peggy or whatever, then record the name she was given at birth as the name and show Maggie as a nickname or variation with an exclamation in a note. If you never find a reference to her "real" name but only find her nickname recorded, then your records should reflect the name as it appears in the original source record, not your interpretation of the name. 

Spelling variations
This is a sore spot with me. The mark of an inexperienced and/or dogmatic genealogist is one who insists that their ancestors' names were spelled one way or another. It is not unusual to find ancestor's names spelled various different ways. Remember that the people who were recording the names often did not hear the name correctly or simply spelled the name the way they felt was right. Your ancestor may not even have known the "correct" way to spell his or her name. Here, more than any place else, the variations in spelling should be preserved in your database. Take the time to show all the variations as they appear in original records and explain where the variations come from. In some cases, family members will simply have to come to a consensus as to which spelling of the name to use. This is another major contributor to duplication in family trees. You might want to start with Name variations: tips & tricks. 

I have very often had people become upset because their own name or the name of an ancestor was not capitalized properly. This issue is very closely related to spelling variations. In some cases, you simply must record all the variations and choose the one you like as the primary way to record information. 

As you go back in time, you will undoubtedly run into scripts that are hard to read, an s that looks like an f and such. Even in Western European countries, the alphabets and characters used to record names and everything else vary from country to country. For example, here is the Danish alphabet from Wikepedia:

  • A, a: /æːˀ/
  • B, b: /b̥eːˀ/
  • C, c: /sʰeːˀ/
  • D, d: /d̥eːˀ/
  • E, e: /eːˀ/
  • F, f: /ef/
  • G, g: /ɡ̊eːˀ/
  • H, h: /hɔːˀ/
  • I, i: /iˀ/
  • J, j: /jʌð/
  • K, k: /kʰɔːˀ/
  • L, l: /el/
  • M, m: /em/
  • N, n: /en/
  • O, o: /oːˀ/
  • P, p: /pʰeːˀ/
  • Q, q: /kʰuːˀ/
  • R, r: /æːɐ/
  • S, s: /esʰ/
  • T, t: /tˢeːˀ/
  • U, u: /uːˀ/
  • V, v: /ʋeːˀ/
  • W, w: /dʌb̥əlʋeːˀ/
  • X, x: /eɡ̊sʰ/
  • Y, y: /yːˀ/
  • Z, z: /sʰeð/
  • Æ, æ: /ɛːæˀ/
  • Ø, ø: /øːˀ/
  • Å, å: /ɔːˀ/

Notice the three letters at the end that are not part of our common English alphabet. In some cases words written with those letters are different than a word appearing with the alternate. Presently, all computer operating systems have the ability to reproduce the characters in all the different languages. I would suggest that genealogists start making this a priority and record the names of their Danish, Norwegian, German etc. ancestors as they were given at birth.

Name changes
Names change. This is a fact of life. There are hundreds of reasons why people change their names, many of them trivial. Genealogists begin to find this issue almost immediately upon trying to research ancestors born in another country. Very often, the ancestor would adopt a new name, officially or very often, unofficially, when they moved to a country with a different language. Just remember the rule about recording the name at the time of birth and then recording name variations in notes or alternative names. I could write a book on this subject. but the rule usually sorts out the issue. 

Titles should be recorded as titles. Almost all genealogy database programs today provide for a way that titles can be recorded separately from the names as given at birth. There is one issue, that is children who were actually given the name of captain, major, doctor or whatever at birth. If the ancestor's name is the same as a common title, then there should always be an explanation. 

Other words
I am at the end of my list. What I find is genealogists who feel compelled to record occupation or other information in the name fields of their databases. If the word or words are not part of the name as given at birth, then don't record it as a name. Occupations should be recorded as occupations etc. 

The inventiveness of genealogists can never be underestimated. I am sure that I will continue to find an amazing number of different words and spellings in name fields in the future. Maybe this will change? Never. Not as long as I make my own typographical errors. 


  1. Good blog post. What do you do if you find a gravestone of an infant who died. Gravestone says "Son of (Father's Name) and (Mother's Name). No name of this child on gravestone. This was in the 1880's (based on birth dates of infant's siblings) in rural Kansas. Therefore no birth certificate, probably no death certificate, and even obituary may not be available. What do you put in the name field?

    1. Before putting in the name "Infant" or "Baby," check the cemetery records for a a permit for burial and for the document selling the cemetery lot. If it was a church, check the christening records.

    2. The latest training at the FS Library, it was indicated in regards to a baby that died and no name is known, that you put only the surname of the baby and indicated the gender in the check box provided in Family Tree.

      My Father in Law is Robert William Miller Jr., but his birth certificate says R.W. Miller, with his father using only his initials too. They must not have been able to comprehend what "Full name" really meant when they filled out the information!

    3. There are as many "standard" ways of doing this as there are people who like standards. You are right, this is the standard for FamilySearch Family Tree "For a husband with an unknown name or a child who died without receiving a name, enter only the father’s last name. Do not enter a first name. Do not enter Mr., Miss, son, or daughter. Be sure that the gender is correctly entered as male or female if you know it." See

  2. “All names should be recorded as they were given at the time of birth.” Here’s a fascinating twist for you.

    In the Norwegian churches, as you may already know, from the early 1800s to the late 1900s two copies of the church records were kept, the Ministerialbok in which the priest recorded events and the Klokkerbok in which the sexton or another helper kept a duplicate copy. Events were supposed to be recorded as promptly as possible. Sometime the priest would write down the event first and the sexton would copy his record. Sometime it would be the other way around. Looking at the two books, there is no way to tell which book was written first and if the two versions were written minutes apart or days apart.

    My wife has an ancestor whose birth record in the Ministerialbok gives her name as Caroline. The Klokkerbok birth record gives it as Karolene. Guess it is time to flip a coin!

    1. Well, you can always assume that sources will disagree in details. Spelling is always a challenge.