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The Meaning of Your Name - Understanding the Origins of Names Can Aid in Your Genealogy Research


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Type: Article
Prepared by: Barbara Cagle
Word Count: 1215 (approx.)
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In the earliest days of human history people rarely needed more than a few grunts or whistles to call each other in times of danger. But as populations grew, sounds were combined and as language evolved, words or complex combinations of sounds were assigned, or assumed, by individuals to be able to not only call each other, but to be able to tell each other apart. After all, every one in an animal skin with long hair probably looked somewhat alike.

We needed to be able to lay claim to property and land, our spouses and children. Names were one of the ways we did this, and one of the ways we kept records that ultimately were supposed to help avoid disputes. How confusing it must have been in those very early days.

The first Johan or John, thousands of years ago, may have fathered a male child whom he named John. This child may soon have become known as The son of John or John's son. Perhaps even little john. If your surname ends with 'son' as in Johnson, Jackson, Albertson, Smithson and so on you should probably continue your research into the earlier records as your name indicates an original version and the child of the first John, Jack, Albert, or Smith.

Locations and occupations often also played a role in how names were chosen. Long ago there was a small gathering of people who were trying to make their way in the wilds of our newly emerging America. Perhaps a wagon train came through the area and several new families decided to join the group. The small settlement began to grow. People would have, as people do, begun trading services for products or other services. The man who operated the local mill may have traded services with the local blacksmith. Imagine that both of these men were named Thomas. You wanted to be able to know which Thomas you were hearing about so they became Thomas the Smith or Thomas Smith, and Thomas the Miller or Thomas Miller.

In my family we have 'Joyners' who were probably involved in some sort of early building or carpentry. A Joiner is someone who builds certain parts of buildings like stairs or doors and windows. I have often thought that my ease with woodworking comes through my DNA from some early Joyners. Perhaps my love of bread comes from early millers who were occupied with grinding grains and experimenting with ways to make bread more easily.

Often surnames are taken from an area of the settlement. Brooks usually became the name of families living near a, you got it, a brook. Rivers families lived close to rivers and perhaps even worked the river as with those who ran boats for transportation across larger rivers. Some people lived in forested areas and became the families of Woods.

Names have changed a lot over the centuries. Early, during the days when records first began to be kept, writing was not as common as today. Often a person had no clue as to the way a name was spelled. This is why we always look for variations and alternative spellings when we research our surnames. A passenger boarding a ship who was named Boone, for example, may have been recorded as Boon, Boonne, Bune, or Bunne and so on. In my family it soon became obvious that my mother's maiden name, Elschner, was changed over the generations. We have documents showing early ancestors spelled the name as Eltzschner, Ellsner, Elsner, Etchner, and so on. Tracing the correct line, especially thorough war damaged europe has been a daunting task at times, but it is possible. You just need patience.

A lack of naming conventions in early days also gave rise to confusion. The son of John who was named Peter may have become Peter Johnson, while his son, Henry became Henry Peterson. This means that a family surname might change from generation to generation. Then as migration grew, it often happened that the officials recording entries into a country could not figure out how to pronounce or spell a foreign sounding name. Often names were changed to sound more like what was familiar. My maiden name, Miller is an example of a change from Mueller!

So what is a genealogist to do? Try this.

---Make a list of every possible spelling you can think of for your surname, no matter how strange it may seem. ---Think about all the ways your name may have been mispronounced by others. Say your name aloud and try to think of different ways it might be heard by someone from a different country ---Don't fear some experimentation. Change K's to C's, or Sh to Sch. Perhaps a hard consonant was once a soft one, or vice-a-versa.

Certainly you will come up with some unusual spellings and pronunciations, but it is quite possible that is the way it once was.

There are many other ways names were derived. For example, Norwegians often take a name associated with the family farm, and Most German names come from places, colors, or occupations. If your heritage is African you will find that there were no surnames allowed and a slave was known by a nickname assigned to them and the surname of their owner.

Research into your ancestry can be one of the most fascinating and enjoyable activities you undertake in your life. If you love a mystery you will probably soon become addicted to the search. If you are a history buff, like me, you will find yourself studying the time periods in which your family lived and you may discover you become that person in your group with all the trivia knowledge. If you have been searching for some time and are up against a brick wall, consider that you may be encountering an alternative spelling, pronunciation, or generational name change.

Take a little time to look into the origins for the names you are researching. It may mean the difference in discovering you are descended from aristocracy or the labor force, your family origins began in the mountains of Europe, or beside a rolling brook in Ireland. Names can help you pinpoint locations and learn how your earlier ancestors lived. Sometime the name can even tell you why your ancestors decided to migrate to America.

You can never be sure what you will find when you begin to climb your family tree!

If you are interested in learning more about your own family history, if you are wanting to climb, or grow your family tree but don't know how to get started, I have some resources that may help you.

Whether you are looking for a simple to use search, just starting or a seasoned genealogist. If you are looking for resources, historical data, books, family photos and other resources, including some interesting and helpful articles, I have what you want and can point you to what you need to find your roots.

I have so much, in fact, that I had to split off from my original Cagle Genealogy Online and take up the search and delivery of information at my new site, Family Genealogy. Check out Family Genealogy for helpful info, multi-site search, and FREE forums where you can connect with others.

It is never too early to begin climbing your family tree to discover your roots.

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