Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

It is not all in the name: the challenge of naming practices and traditions


The traditional Western European genealogical representation of a person's name is adequately illustrated by this example from the website. 

Here is an example of a name from the Netherlands in the 18th century as recorded in the website: Isaac Eizik Marcus Mordechai de Vries. What is not recorded is the fact that most Jews did not have family names in the Netherlands before 1811. See "Jewish Genealogical research in the Netherlands, Compiled by Reinier Bobbe z”l, Jan Sanberg, Ury Link, Moshe Mossel and Ben Noach." What would appear to be a surname, "de Vries," is simply a designation of the family's origin. "De Vries" as explained in a Wikipedia article has the following meaning:
De Vries is one of the most common Dutch surnames. It indicates a geographical origin: "Vriesland" is an old spelling of the Dutch province of Friesland (Frisia). Hence, "de Vries" means "the Frisian". The name has been modified to "DeVries", "deVries", or "Devries" in other countries.
Variant form(s): DeVries, Devries, Vries
Language(s): Dutch
Region of origin: Netherlands
Meaning: The Frisian

Additional spellings of the name also include DeFries, DeFriez, and De Friez. Some of these variations are recorded for members of the same family. Again quoting from the article above on Jewish research,

A Jewish male child is traditionally named after his grandfather, apart from a few exceptions, so from the name “XXXX son of YYYY” the names of both grandfather (XXXX) and father (YYYY) can usually be deduced.

A Jewish female child is likewise named after her grandmother, and the same rules apply.

In the text on gravestones the name of the mother is usually mentioned as well (“XXXX born from ZZZZ” or: “the name of his/her mother is ZZZZ”). Posthumous children on the other hand are named after the father who recently passed away.

Among Sephardim, as is customary among non-Jews, children are often named after the father while he is still alive.

While civil names do not often give a good indication for establishing family relationships, the Hebrew names often give more support for the reconstruction of family ties, taking regional distinctions into account.

Please refer to the article for additional important details regarding the naming practices. 

It is extremely important to genealogical research to note that the name entry form at the beginning of this post makes no allowances for any of the important information concerning the names in the examples I have given so far. Another important statement from the article is that civil names do not often give a good indication for establishing family relationships. 

If you had Jewish ancestors in the Netherlands in the 18th Century and before, how would you enter the names of your ancestors in order to avoid losing all the information that could be contained in the names themselves?

In this post, I am focusing on Western European names. But as an aside, I might mention Shoshone or Shoshoni naming practices used well into the 19th Century. Here is one example of an academic article on Shoshoni naming practices. 

Chamberlin, Ralph V. 1913. Place and Personal Names of the Gosiute Indians of Utah. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 52,208.1-20. See also Shoshoni Dictionary

Here is a quote from the article from the section where individual names are discussed. 

Among the Gosiute many personal names are given in reference to some feature of the physical appearance. Thus, a boy with conspicuous ears that stand out from the head is named K?m'o-r?p, meaning, in effect, " Rabbit ears " or " he with rabbit ears." Another young man who has a spinal curvature is called in full ' I'ca-gwaim-no-dsup, " Person whose back appears broken " ; a girl with a considerable growth of hair on her upper lip goes under the name M?'ts?mp, from mo'tsu, muts, meaning moustache; a boy who is tall is Nan'nan-tci, from mchna'hna, to grow up, grow up high, and a tall woman is similarly called Na' See Stable URL:

Are these given names or surnames. In any event, they do not covey any form of family relationship and should not be considered to be surnames. 

The Spanish language is variously ranked as the second or third most spoken language in the world. See "Top 10 Languages By Number Of Native Speakers" for an example.  Spanish language names constitute a major challenge to the most commonly genealogically represented naming patterns illustrated by the FamilySearch example above. 

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Now think about this, if an English speaking person from the United States who had no knowledge of any of the above naming practices was to be asked to index or enter any one of the names from these three examples what are the chances that the name would be entered correctly and further, what is the chance that all the additional information about the name and the naming practices would be lost?

Additionally, in the case of Shoshoni names, which method of phonetic representation would be appropriately used? If you don't understand this question, then this is yet another issue in indexing and entering names. Here is a short explanation from Wikipedia: Spanish naming customs:

Spanish naming customs are historical traditions that are practised in Spain for naming children. According to these customs, a person's name consists of a given name (simple or composite) followed by two surnames. Historically, the first surname was the father's first surname, and the second the mother's first surname. In recent years, the order of the surnames in a family is decided when registering the first child, but the traditional order is still usually chosen

Here is a further quote from Wikipedia that gives some insight into the difficulty of generalizing naming patterns.

Patrilineal surname transmission was not always the norm in Spanish-speaking societies. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, when the current paternal-maternal surname combination norm was adopted, Hispanophone societies often practiced matrilineal surname transmission, giving children the maternal surname and occasionally giving children a grandparent's surname (borne by neither parent) for prestige – being perceived as gentry – and profit, flattering the matriarch or the patriarch in hope of inheriting land. Spanish naming customs include the orthographic option of conjoining the surnames with the conjunction particle y, or e before a name starting with 'I', 'Hi' or 'Y', (both meaning "and") (e.g., José Ortega y Gasset, Tomás Portillo y Blanco, or Eduardo Dato e Iradier), following an antiquated aristocratic usage. 

I have had the topic of this post on a list on a note on my desk for some time now. But it moved to the top for a variety of reasons including the fact that I have been providing support to the Brigham Young University Family History Library and the Salt Lake City Family History Library for the past few months helping with online patron support. See Family History Library in Salt Lake City. My support has been, almost exclusively conducted in Spanish, concerning ancestral lines in Italy, Spain, and Latin America. Since the entry form for English speakers is not helpful for Spanish speakers, FamilySearch has made available a Spanish language version of the website. Here is the same form from the Spanish version. 

This is simply a translation from the English form with two small differences; the surname designation is plural rather than singular and there is a statement that says, "If the person is a woman, use her maiden name." This implies that only the woman's maiden name should be used but there is only one blank space when there are usually two surnames. 

It is also important to note that not all the Spanish-speaking countries adhere to this traditional naming pattern to the same extent. 

I will have a lot more to say on this subject. The main question is when will the dominant Western European genealogical forms begin to reflect the fact that even Western European naming patterns do not conform to a standard two-part entry system?


  1. Actually, an Ashkenazi Jewish child is traditionally named after a deceased relative. So a grandparent is who at most two of the sons and two of the daughters might be named after if the grandparent had already passed away. All the other children would be named after some other close relative who passed away.

    1. Hi Louis, Nice to see you online. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Or take the patronymics used across many parts of Western Europe for centuries... How do they fit into the FS form? Not sure about others but Welsh patronymics can be multi part - Henry ap Meredudd ap Twdr (spelling done from memory so almost certainly wrong!) means Henry son of Meredith, son of Tudor, but the number of parts appears to be a matter of taste. Personally I'd put all 4 of the last words in that example into the Last Names box but others argue that patronyms, being changeable, should appear in the First Name box. Arguably a lot of this isn't a technical problem - it just needs a pragmatic agreement communicated effectively.

    1. This is exactly the problem created by the standard 3-part form.

  3. What happens if both surnames are put into the same box?

    1. The issue then becomes which of the names is then used for indexing the entry.