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The Compleat Genealogy Database: Names

Obviously, genealogy is about names. Judy Rosella Edwards explores what constitutes a name and exactly what you need to know before adding a name to a genealogical database.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Obviously, genealogy is about names. But, what constitutes a name and exactly what do you need to know before adding a name to a genealogical database? It is tempting to fill in all the surnames for a family even before identifying given names. It is not a good practice and can lead to the wrong family down the road. Genealogy is international and multicultural. Not every culture bestows names in the same manner.


Document every name. Too often, we overlook the fact that there is a citation option for each name in every genealogical database. It is not enough to cite the birth and parents. Also, cite how you know this child's name. Two of the most common sources are birth certificates and church christening records. Those are the moments when a child is named.

International Names

Swedish families use a unique system for naming that actually preserves lineages quite nicely. We know that Lisken Andersdotter and Karin Andersdotter are both daughters (dotter) and their father's name is Anders. Too often, it is tempting to fill in the surname database field for a father based on the child's surname. That is ill advised when researching Swedish ancestors.

In this example, Lisken and Karin's father was Anders Parsson, the son of Pedr Andersson, who was the son of Anders Bengtsson. Each generation has a different surname.

Often, sources such as county histories reveal that there were several children in the family, without identifying each child by name. Resist the temptation to fill in the surname field for all siblings based on one child's surname. Traditionally, Swedish female and male siblings are given different names. In our example above, Anders Bengtsson had a brother named Peder Bengtsson – but their sister was Sara Bengtsdotter. If Sara were discovered first, it would be erroneous to assume that her two brothers' last names were Bengtsdotter. It would also lead to a lot of frustration due to searching for ancestors who do not exist.

On the plus side, being aware of the Swedish naming system can simplify searches. Working backward, we know that Lisken and Karin Andersdotter's father's first name was Anders – not what Westerners consider a last name. To clarify, the first part of a child's surname is their father's given name. The pattern works out quite nicely and does make it possible to generate surnames based on a limited amount of information.

The Chinese text "Hundred Family Surnames" lists the original 411 surnames, all conveniently generated to trace lineage. Other surnames have surfaced since the original 411, but once a connection is established to one of the original names it becomes a key to other ancestors.

Jump to Scandinavia and you will find names based on location. To make matters worse, families changed their name when they moved. While that certainly makes it easier to locate where a family lived, it also means that place is perhaps more important than family. The New FamilySearch database does an excellent job of accommodating multiple names for the same person. (Under the Summary option, click on the Name drop-down list to add an alternate name.)


Be sure to include nicknames. If a database does not provide a field for entering a nickname, add it as an alternate name. Another option is to add it to the first name field inside quotes.

While government documents, such as census returns, are intended to document legal names, there is no guarantee that a legal name is given and the government does not verify or correct names. I have an ancestor named Young Lee Wade. On some records, his name is given as Lee Wade, because someone assumed that "Young" was a nickname similar to "junior." It was not. His full legal name is Young Lee Wade. To make matters worse, he had a descendant named Lee Wade (without the Young). Dates and other data are necessary to determine which Lee Wade is in question.

Nicknames are rife in my family. We have Chick, Bud, Tins, Abb, Sis, Fats, Corky, and Bus. My father's name was William but one of his nicknames was "Don," and his father who was also named William was known as "Dud." Obituaries and other sources sometimes refer to them by their nicknames. There are a number of small town newspaper references to Tins Wade, but his real name was Henry Tinsley Wade.

Recording nicknames is important, but it should be considered secondary. We know that there are many common nicknames that are used interchangeably like Sarah and Sadie and Sally. A nickname is common and is not a reliable identification. It should be recorded, but your genealogy database is not complete until you verify the person's legal name. The legal name is the one recorded on the person's birth certificate, regardless of what name they chose to be called.


Aliases are names people give to themselves. While the most common alternate name is an alias, such as pen name or stage name, there are numerous reasons people assume names. Of course, not all of them are legitimate.

Knowing aliases is far more helpful than one might realize. Inmates in prisons or asylums are often enumerated by their alias, as well as their legal name. Be sure to collect this information in your genealogy database. You are likely to find at least two additional sources under that alias: an arrest and a newspaper account of the arrest.

In more recent times, people often change their own names because they prefer to be called something else. I have a cousin who changed her name from Carol to Carolyn. It is not a big change, but 75 years from now it will be helpful to researchers to know that they were the same person.

Middle Names

Another reason to find birth certificates is that they reveal a person's full name. It is often surprising to discover that your cousin Joe is actually named Kelly Joe, Uncle Dean is Russell Dean, or Aunt Pearl's full name is Roxa Pearl.

Too often it is tempting to skip middle names. However, they are keys to family lineage. My middle name, Rosella, is my mother's first name as well as the name of another ancestor several generations back. It is the name of an Australian parrot, but that has nothing to do with my family! It is a German name and came to me through the German lineage on my mother's side of the family.

My mother's family has a tradition of passing on names through the middle name. My mother's middle name is Belle, the same as her grandmother, Rhoda Belle. Actually, my mother had two middle names. When that is the case, be sure to include both. At least one of them has a high probability of being an inherited name. In her case, both middle names were family names.

These are little nuances and any given generation can veer from them. But, knowing middle names can be essential in making connections. Always verify with primary sources, but do not overlook a middle name. Always add it to your database.

Bestowed Names

Members of tribes are often given names by the tribe that differ from the name given to them by their family. Sometimes names are changed at the time of christening or at the passage into adulthood.

An essential but difficult name to identify is the original name of those who were sold into slavery. Slave traffickers gave Anglicized names to slaves. Old Betsy was certainly not given that name in Africa. Most genealogical data about her, what little there may be, would be under the name of Old Betsy. But, it would be so special to identify her African name and store it in your database. In fact, your genealogical record is not complete for Old Betsy until you restore her true name to her.

Ancient Family Names

Names have evolved over time. Every culture seems to agree on one thing: each person should have a unique name. At the very least, they should have a unique name within their generation.

Anglicized surnames prior to about 1700 can begin to take on a new dimension. An ancestor may be Sir John of Whatever. Of course, that does not fit neatly into any genealogical database. That is no reason not to find a way to include it. In fact, it is essential family data. But, that is a name that was bestowed on the person based on some event, or even an inheritance, that occurred later in life. It is not especially useful in tracing that person's ancestors, although the name will carry down through descendants. Document these family names, but keep them in perspective.

A Personal Choice

Regardless of our personal viewpoint, when it comes to genealogy it is important to respect a person's choice of name. Every database I have seen forces the wife to become "Mrs. Whatever," taking the husband's surname.

I married later in life, after being published under my maiden name, and chose not to take my husband's surname. My husband endorsed my decision.

If future generations search for "Judy Rosella Imig" they will not find me, even though my husband's last name is Imig. That person does not exist. I am not offended when someone calls me Mrs. Imig. But, a century from now no one will find a census return or a death certificate bearing the name Judy Imig.

At the very least, make a note in the database when someone kept her maiden name. By the same token, make a note if a man chose to take his wife's surname, or to hyphenate his.

Establishing a person's name is not something we should impose on a genealogical database. It will lead to brick walls. Names need to reflect fact. They need to reflect reality. Names need to override the database structure even if the notes area is the only means of accomplishing that.


Creating a compleat database means including as much detail as possible about names without imposing cultural bias. For each person, include the family name they used. In fact, include all family names if they were from a country where names changed when people moved. Include the given name each person used and any nicknames they were given.

Document names as accurately and completely as possible, adding notes when necessary. Those are the names to search.

The minimum goal is to document a first name, middle name, and surname for every person in your database. Make this the year to fill in every name and to cite proof that each individual is the child of the people you have identified as their parents.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

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

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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