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The Compleat Genealogy Database: Compleat Names

Judy Rosella Edwards explains how a database really isn't complete until all the name fields are filled in, along with a few extras like nicknames.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 696 (approx.)
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We all know we need to include names in our database. But what should they look like?


The most grievous surname errors occur with birth names. Who among us has never been guilty of typing in a spouse's surname when we don't know a person's birth name? Sometimes we do it to keep people straight until we confirm their birth name. But, it is a bad habit to get in to.

Each person should be identified by their birth name. It is better to type "Unknown" or "Unidentifed" in a field than it is to type in the surname of their spouse.

Keep in mind that no one else in the world fits into the family tree where you do. Anyone else looking at an individual may not bother to look at their spouse's name. It becomes all too easy to assume that the name is the birth name. It is not uncommon for people with the same surname to marry. But, unless that is truly the case, it is better not to supply the married name.


Every database needs a field for a nickname, and it should be displayed where the nickname is immediately visible. My own family has been fond of nicknames for generations, on both sides of my family.

If you find Shad Edwards, you won't be looking at my father's family history, even though friends called him Shad. I have photos of him with the name Shad Edwards written on the back. But it was just one of many nicknames he went by.

I grew up hearing my father called William, Bill, Don, and Donaldwood. His name was actually William Donaldwood Edwards.

Other Names

Be sure to record any other names a person may have used. Immediately, this makes us think of movie stars and outlaws. But, members of some religious groups may take on new names. It has been common, for years, for people to rename themselves.

Preserve indigenous names. Record a Native American's name, even if they were known by an English name. It is part of their heritage.

Some of these names will appear in vital records. Those that don't may still appear in local news, diaries, and other documents.

It is quite likely that 200 years from now we will remember that Tania was, for a time, Patricia Hearst and that most of us knew Herbert Khaury as Tiny Tim. But, there are changed names in just about everyone's family. We owe them the honor of respecting the name they chose.

There are also surname changes that were imposed on immigrants. There is often a quandary over whether to preserve posterity, or whether to record the name that appears in vital records. Databases have "notes" fields where an explanation should be spelled out in as much detail as possible.

As a researcher, it does matter whether an ancestor's name was changed in Yugoslavia, or France, or New York. Otherwise, you will need to search both names in all three locations. If you can establish that the family name was changed in July 1873 in France, then you know which name should appear on a ship's manifest when it arrived in New York harbor.

Honor the Family Spelling

It doesn't really matter whether you prefer the name "Marsha." If grandma's name was "Marcia," then that is the way it should be spelled.

I was recently researching a family in Hawaii that was allegedly named McBride. It took longer than it should have for me to discover and document that the family was really named McBryde.

Honor Native Spellings

There are proper ways to spell names of many countries. If there should be an umlaut, include it, as best you can. New FamilySearch provides a collection of surname spelling traditions. Honor your ancestors by adhering to the spelling rules. You may find you have the wrong person if you don't.

A database really isn't complete until all the name fields are filled in, along with a few extras like nicknames. It doesn't matter if there is only one field for a middle name. Many people have more than one middle name and they should all be included. For one thing, in some instances those middle names are your path to the past.

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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