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What's in a Name?

It might be true that a rose would still smell like a rose if we called it something else, but then it isn't a rose anymore.


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"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Thus spoke William Shakespeare in his immortal play, "Romeo and Juliet." It might be true that a rose would still smell like a rose if we called it something else, but then it isn't a rose anymore. When you stop to ponder this adage in relation to family history, the mind absolutely reels with the chaotic implications. What's in a name? The very existence of a "family." Surnames were the result of efforts to identify individuals. One of the keys to doing family research is understanding and learning to recognize naming patterns and customs, both on a national and family level, which help with that identification. Just imagine the chaos that could be created if you had a small town and 15 of the 25 male inhabitants were named William without any other designation. Which one is yours? I discovered this in tracing my third great-grandfather, William C. Campbell. Do you know how many William Campbells are on the 1860 census? I do. The only way I found him was by knowing the name of his wife, which luckily for me was spelled out fully and not shortened as it was in later records.

One of the most unique examples of naming patterns and customs can be found in French Canadian research. A "dit" name is often added to the family name. The English translation for "dit" is "said or say" or "also known as." In other words a "dit" name is an alias. However, unlike the English version of an alias, the "dit" name does not engender negative connotations. It is simply another way to provide further identification.

There are several reasons behind the addition of a "dit" name. It might provide a way to differentiate between a family and that of their siblings or relations. A son who has left his family and moved to another location might add the name of the place of his origin. A person who has been adopted by another family than their own might use the "dit" appellation as a means of honoring their adoptive family without abandoning their birth family. The sources for a "dit" name are as inexhaustible as the names of persons, places, or things. It could be an addition of the bearers occupation or position, a physical description, a character trait, an accomplishment, a government or military identification, or an easier pronunciation of the original name. For example, my name is "Boursaw," phonetic spelling of the original French name "Bourassa," which also had the "dit" appellation "Boiriso," "Bourasseau," "Isabel," and "LaRonde." So far I have found the name spelled seventeen different ways, according to the area and family I am researching. The surname and "dit" name are also interchangeable at any time, so it becomes necessary to search for all the variations and combinations.

When doing research it might be advisable to develop a system to distinguish your surname discoveries. A designation might be given to specific "dit" names, or you could make a list of the spelling variations you find and, of course, pay particular attention to the combinations found. As the "dit" and family name are often interchangeable, you might note in what areas you find it switched. Another error you want to investigate would be the switching of the surname for the given name and vice versa. For example, Joseph Robert could be switched to Robert Joseph. Also, there is a fairly recent pattern in Quebec, which consists in giving both the names of the father and the mother. A smart idea would be to record all the "dit" names you discover for your ancestor, including the misspellings, on your Pedigree Chart or Family Group Record.

Fortunately for the French Canadian researcher many aids have been developed to help in identification of families with "dit" names. The two most prominent are "Dictionnaire genealogique des famillies canadiennes " and 'Complement au dictionnnaire genealogique Tanguay" by Cyprien Tanguay, and Renee Jette's "Repertoire des Anoms de Famille du Quebec."

As in all research, remember, that what you record should reflect your findings, not your assumptions or preferences. Study the naming customs of your family and see if you can find a pattern that has evolved. Find the "rose" by another name.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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