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Article by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

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Los Angeles Times Syndicate, 1989

Myra Vanderpool Gormley is a certified genealogist, syndicated columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and has written more than a thousand articles on the subject of genealogy. She is editor of RootsWeb Review.


Funny names may adorn your family tree

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

They called her "Tribby," but she was baptized Through-Much-Tribulation-We- Enter-into-the-Kingdom-of-Heaven Crabb. Don't laugh. She may be your ancestress. Or one of your pious great-great-great-grandfathers may be named Freelove. You could discover on a 1658 jury panel list the names of some of your Puritan ancestors: Stand- Fast-on-High Stringer, Be-of-Good-Comfort Small, Search- the-Scriptures Moreton or Preserved Uttley.

Beginning, as well as advanced, genealogists find their research amputated somewhere along the way because of names — surnames, first names and nicknames. Our ancestors' names have been recorded, reported and distorted every which way. Successful genealogical research depends on developing two talents dealing with names: A good ear to hear names with myriad accents and a vivid imagination to figure out ways they could have been spelled.

It's a jungle out there in old records. Your Phoebe, can turn up listed as Febe or Phebe or as initials, P.A. or F.A. (for Phoebe Ann). Eunice has been found spelled phonetically by a census taker as "Unis." Sometimes clerks simply could not spell or did not write clearly, or the ink smeared. Poor spelling turned one of my ancestors named Mordecai into a "Mountain." William Shakespeare's surname has been found spelled 93 ways. The world's greatest dramatist's surviving signatures are indecipherable. Some are identical to my doctor's hieroglyphics.

When large families — 10 to 15 children — were common, the given names of our ancestors are intriguing and revealing. In some families naming customs were followed so closely that you can determine the names of all four grandparents, once you know the names of the first two sons and two daughters. Frequently the first son was named for the father's father and the second son for the mother's father, with the first daughter given the maternal grandmother's name and No. 2 daughter was named for her paternal grandmother. In some ethnic groups this custom is reversed or only partially followed. Our ancestors seldom left written explanations as to why they bestowed such names as Comfort, Tonsilitis, Experience, Crazy Bull, Increase, Ebenezer, Creature, Abijah, United, Gottfried, April First or Obadiah on their offspring.

According to Elsdon C. Smith in The Story of Our Names, there was a Cox family in North Carolina who gave its 11 children names beginning with "Z" — Zadie, Zadoc, Zeber, Zylphia, Zenobia, Zeronial, Zeslie, Zeola, Zero, Zula and Zelbert. In West Virginia, a Rogers couple evidently used the weather to name their eight children: Winter, Snow, Icy, Frost, Hale, Raine, June and Day. Was Day the only child born in the daytime? Or was he or she born on just an ordinary day? Naming patterns such as these can keep family historians sleuthing for years.

Genealogical research often reveals some of our ancestors changed their names — usually the surnames, but occasionally they discarded given names (sometimes for obvious reasons). I've often wondered what my ancestor Greenberry was called by his school chums. It's difficult not to chuckle while filling out family group sheets when the children are called Dicey, Penelope, Mourning, Etheldred, Needham, Lazarus, Demarias, Zilpah, Celah and Obedience. They may be my relatives, but their names sure sound funny to my 20th-century ears.

Our immigrant ancestors may not have been able to spell their names, at least not in English, so they told officials their name and they wrote it as it sounded to them. Names that were difficult to pronounce or spell were often changed. Many were translated to an English equivalent, so don't overlook any clues to your family's original surname. Families often have traditions about members changing the spelling of the surname because of a quarrel or because they did not want to be identified with a disliked relative or neighbor. Sometimes they changed their names simply because America was a new beginning and they did not want anything to remind them of an unhappy past.

Semantics sometimes was the reason for a surname change. Some perfectly good European and Asian surnames sounded funny to Americans. Immigrants in general were eager to conform to their new home and their children even more so.

Study the naming patterns you discover and pay attention to the given names in all your lines — not only can they be genealogical clues, but they're part of your family history.

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