The name game

My cousin with his parents.

I recently traveled to Michigan to watch my cousin, Scott, graduate from Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) with a law degree. And like any good family member/genealogist, while I sat with my family waiting for the commencement to commence, I examined the program for Scott’s name. After a few moments, I located my cousin’s first and middle name: Scott Harrison. Excited, I asked my aunt and uncle whether Harrison was a family name. “Nope,” my uncle explained, “when your aunt was eight months pregnant, we got the name Harrison from a billboard that we passed while driving home. It sounded presidential, so we went with it.” Now, because my family is beyond sarcastic, I didn’t believe them at first; however, after a few minutes of my uncle insisting this was the case, I relented – I guess they got the name from a billboard.

Interestingly, the comment created quite the discussion, with many of our family and friends chatting about the origin of their first and middle names:

* Me, Lindsay Elizabeth: My first name was chosen because of my mother’s affinity for Scottish names and my middle name is in honor of my mother’s college roommate, who died before she was 25 years old.

* My mother, Mary: Named after her mother, her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother (and so on). This may lead you to ask, “Lindsay, why aren’t you named Mary?” Don’t even get me started. 🙂

* My cousin, Alexandra: Named after her mother, Sandra, as Alexandra is a feminine variant of the name Sandra.

* My brother, Andrew Dale: Named after the popular Prince Andrew, who married Sarah, Duchess of York, in the same year my brother was born. (My parents also wanted all three of their children to have Scottish names.) His middle name is in honor of my great-uncle Dale, who died when he was twenty-one years old (see my blog post for more on Dale).

* My aunt, Laura Agnes: Named after her maternal grandmother, Nora Agnes, who never went by Nora and only Agnes. I actually knew her as Nana Agnes.

My family’s enthusiasm for sharing their first/middle name origins reminded me of an ice-breaker that I used while working at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts. The premise was simple: I asked the children (typically in fifth grade) if they knew for whom they were named. This would often spark a rousing discussion about their parents’ love of Rock n’ Roll (one young girl was named Starr), Disney (we had an Aurora and a Briar Rose), and their family history (many children were named after their grandparents).

The best part was that the children were really into it –  they loved talking about their names, as well as their ancestors. It was a great introduction to genealogy, because it was the first time that the children thought about their name as a part of a larger story. And whether that story is about getting a name from a billboard or one that was passed down through the generations, it is an important question to ask your parents: How did you choose my name?

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

33 thoughts on “The name game

  1. Hope all of the beautiful lilacs were out on campus for graduation. Congrats to your cousin from another Spartan.

  2. My mother told me they were considering Patricia, but while she was in the hospital, my father went to a movie starring Carole Lombard. And that is how my name was chosen. I guess they had high hopes, as she was beautiful and, had married the handsome Clark Gable. Only problem I have had with the name was that pesky “e” at the end of Carol.

    1. I am also named for Carole Lombard. She had died before I was born and my mother didn’t particularly like the actress but loved the way the name was spelled. She thought it looked “complete”. Since many people don’t spell it with the “e”, as a child I would chant “Without the E, it is not me”. In my 5th grade class, there were five Carol and Carole’s.

        1. My maternal Grandmother’s middle name was Pearle given for her maternal Aunt., Have seen each of them in correspondence spell their names with the “e,” and without it.

  3. My birth certificate says “Baby Girl”, because my parents couldn’t decide on my first name. My mother wanted to name me “Margaret” and my father held out for “Kathleen”. My first name is Kathleen. However, my mother always called me “Kathleen” but my father called me

  4. My sister’s middle name is Kent, which is the name of the dormitory my mother lived in when she was a student at Boston’s Wheelock College .

    1. At first, I thought we might be Kent relatives, as it is a common middle name for many generations in my family!

  5. So sad for me, I never asked my mother the origin of my name before she passed. That would have been SO meaningful to me.

  6. Since my mother named my brother, she told my dad he could name me. His favorite actress was a beauty of Mexican heritage named Maria Montez. He actually wanted to name me Maria Montez Gardner. My mother said Maria was OK, but the Montez had to go. My middle name of Lynn is in homage to her maiden name of Ruland. I’ve never really liked my name, because there weren’t many Maria’s around in central PA, and no one got it right…I’d get Marie mostly, also Marcia, Marian, Mariah. It’s a little better now.

    1. Have your ever heard Johnny Mathis sing the song “Maria,” have loved that name from that song:) My name Mary Delia is from long family lines, but Delia was an elderly neighbor of my Mother’s while she was growing up, in her life she was Aunt Deal, Have several photos of her, have researched her too and found she was slightly related after all:)

  7. I always thought I was named after Debbie Reynolds or Deborah Kerr from the movies, but when I questioned my mom she said it was after a cousin’s girlfriend at the time. I guess she really like Deborah, but the cousin didn’t marry her so guess he wasn’t quite as taken by her or the name.

  8. My name is Carol. It was suppose to be Judy. But as luck would have it I was born on Christmas Day. My grandfather came into the hospital as the nuns were singing Christmas Carols. He said to my mom we have our own little Christmas Carol. So no more Judy.

  9. My mother told me at one time she wanted to call me Paul, or Pamela Sue. As the 4th child in the family I would be P.S. Another time she said they were’scraping the bottom of the barrel for names” when they came up with …Nancy Lee…

  10. I was named for my mother’s grandmother, Catherine Ford Fry. While my mother was named for her aunt Arly, a sister was named Elizabeth for a great grandmother. On my dad’s side, there were many multigenerational names, such as Thomas, Joseph, and Alonzo. Then to make genealogy easier they threw in last names as middle names, except for my uncle whose first name is Putnam for another ancestor.

  11. Every one of my siblings and myself have family names. Mine, Kathryn Lyle: Kathryn for my father’s sister who died at 18, Lyle for my mother’s middle name which came from her great-aunt eliza, always called Lyle. My younger sister, Cynthia Page: Page from a Revolutionary war ancestor Lebbeus Page. My younger brother, Jay Bruce: from his grandfather, Joseph Bruce, who always went by J. Bruce. My youngest sister, Marion Charlotte: Marion from my grandmother and Charlotte, the middle name of a great-grandmother. My youngest brother, Claude Philip, III: for his and my father and grandfather.

  12. I enjoyed your story more than you know. Before I was born my mother had picked out the name Peter for me, but that wasn’t to be. My dad met a man in a bar whose name was Dean and when he told my mother the name she abruptly changed horses, but with a minor modification. She decided to add an “e” at the end of Dean. She said that was so no one would confuse me with the Dean of a college (fat chance of that, believe me). ,,, and so I was names after a stranger in a bar.

  13. Try having a first name of Jinny and a middle name of Pritchard. The Pritchard was my mother’s maiden name. My father never told anyone where he got my name of Jinny. The closest name I can find is in Dutch, Jini which is Jane in English.

    1. Could your name be from Arabic jinni, what in English is usually spelled genie, as in the genie in the bottle? The non-English spelling occurs in some fairy-tale collections, so your father need not have known any Arabic.

    2. I would have thought that Jimmy was a nickname for Virginia. I have had a couple of friends for whom that was the case.

  14. My sister Carol was born while my father was in the same hospital with pneumonia, so not around to help her contradict the nurse who announced to my mother that the baby’s name was to be “Caroline.” “OH no,” said the nurse, “too old fashioned for this pretty little girl” so my sister is Carol Ann. When I told this at a gathering of college friends a few years ago, my friend Carolyn exclaimed, ” The same thing happened to my mother-at the same hospital!” We could only conclude that one very controlling nurse had named both these baby girls, sadly, both who would have preferred being Carolines.

  15. Unfortunately, now millennial parents are giving their kids names with no meaning except because it is trendy, like Madison or Dakota. I have met some girls name McKenzie without a drop of Scottish ancestry. That is very disconcerting to people are just choosing names for trends or because it just sounds good with the last name.

    1. Not just today were parents naming their children unusual names. For one example – first name Tennessee – I have discovered 5 girls in one family line with this name. Apparently selected when the families moved in the 1840s from NC to TN. And my 3G grand father whose name was Eliphalet, suddenly broke from 6 generations of Biblical names when in 1805 he chose Hollom, Philander, Minerva, and Cordelia for his children. Wonder why?

  16. I was supposed to be Robyn Suzanne but somehow I am Linda Kingsley. Kingsley after my material grandfather, Gilbert Kingsley Switzer. My brother’s middle name, Donald, after my father. My grandson has 4 names: William (my dad’s missile name), Edward (My father-in-law), Richard (my husband’s middle name) and our last name. Our son was named after a kid that was at summer camp when I was a counselor and our daughter….just because!

  17. Glad there’s another genealogist with a Spartan connection, Go Green! I have two middle names as to my six siblings. The first middle name is not family related, but we all share Cavanaugh as a second middle name as both of our grandmothers’ maiden names was Cavanaugh. Best of luck to Scott!

  18. My three siblings and I were all named for our parents, who were Robert Richard and Winifred Jean. So I am Deborah Jean. (Deborah is because my mom couldn’t decide between Deborah and Charlotte, so she asked the doctor to pick the name.) My oldest brother is Richard Allen. (Allen is for my father’s cousin who died during WWII.) My younger brother was Vaughn Robert. (Mom wanted to name him Gordon Robert, but my dad vetoed it because his boss was named Gordon. He said everyone at work would say he was trying to shine up to the boss.) When the youngest came along, my maternal grandmother suggested Roberta as a girl’s name, to fit the pattern. Dad really liked that idea but said a girl should be named for her mother. So my sister got the name Roberta Winn.

  19. This tickles me, because an ongoing topic in my extended family was who was named for whom. Almost all of us were given first and middle names after relatives and ancestors, and the names were passed down from generation to generation, going back centuries. Because so many names were repeated and combined in different descendant lines, I have to identify cousins by date of birth, or which aunt and uncle they belonged to. I am one of the exceptions. My original first name, Dayle, stood out alone (though it was given to a cousin’s daughter as a middle name). I asked my mom where she got the name Dayle, and she said she saw it somewhere and liked it. I hated it, because though my family called me by both my first and middle names, no one else did, and the name led to a lot of teasing, as it was seen as a male name, leading to some embarrassing situations (like the time I was given PE first class my first year in high school, and sent to the boy’s locker room). Thank heavens I at least had my grandmother’s middle name Ann. Her mother’s name was Annie, and the name had come down through generations before that. I liked my great grandmother’s name Annie, so began using it as soon as I could. One day I came across the Gaelic name Delyth, and chose it for my middle name. And that is who I am. It only took 70 years.

  20. My son named his oldest boy Nicholas. As it had no family connection, I ask where it came from. He said he had been reading Machiavelli…Nicolo. Same thing with boy number two…Theodore, as he was reading a Theodore Roosevelt biography. Fortunately the boys got two family connected middle names. And I have found a Nicholas in my Hathaway line.

    Nice piece, Lindsay.

  21. Our family is huge on ‘nick names’………my last child (of six) was supposed to be a boy….ended up having twins (not knowing it…no ultrasound in ’65) that made seven!!.. We named Christina Mae (after both grandmothers middle names) and James Lucian… James after my father and middle name Lucian after his fathers middle name….and husband said to me…..I don’t care what he’s named as long as we call him “Pete”,,,his Dad’s nickname. Christina was so tiny, nurses called her ‘Penny’,…..nurses ultimately called them “Pete and Penny”………and it’s stuck for 51 years!!!!!! Two peas in a pod!!

  22. Three comments on naming: (1) When I was about to graduate from high school, I was called into the principal’s office. The clerk gave me a lecture about how important it was to have one’s complete and accurate name on one’s diploma. I didn’t know what she was talking about until she said, “Harold, what is your middle name?” My answer was, “I don’t have one.” “Come now,” she said, “Everyone has a middle name.” I insisted, “I don’t, and none of my siblings have a middle name!” She was finally convinced. The peculiar thing is, my father and mother had middle names, and I never thought to ask them (while they were alive) why they didn’t give middle names to their children.
    (2) When I married my wife, I discovered that her father’s first name was Herbert, but that he was called “Bob.” When I asked why, he said that his parents had argued about what name to give him; his father preferred “Robert,” but his mother preferred “Herbert.” They finally agreed to name him “Herbert” but to call him “Bob.”
    Years went by, World War II came along, and “Bob,” now an engineering graduate from MIT, went to work for Curtiss-Wright aircraft in Buffalo, NY. Since he needed his birth certificate, he went to the Onondaga record office in Syracuse, gave them his name and birthdate, and was astonished when they said there was no record of a “Herbert” born on that date BUT there was a “Robert” who was born on that date. That’s how he found out that his father had not lived up to his promise, but had actually registered the boy as “Robert.”
    (3) When my wife and I got into genealogy, we had trouble with basic data involving her great-great-grandfather’s wife. David Cogswell had married Mary Barn(e)s, but the birth and death dates made no sense, either too early or too late to be accurate. After some time, the mystery was cleared up as we discovered that David had been married twice and both spouses had the same name! In fact, the second wife was the niece of the first wife. So you never know.

  23. These comments have led me to remember the name situation of my aunt’s husband, Tad. His name was Clarence, but he had always been called Tad. When his first son was born, he was named Clarence Junior, always called Junior. When Junior married, his son was named Clarence James, always called Jim. Eventually Uncle Tad needed a birth certificate to apply for a state benefit, so he sent to Illinois for it. They told him there was no certificate for a Clarence Williams. However, there was a certificate for a male child born to his parents on his birthday with the name Manly. He could not use that certificate as identification because of the name, so he was told that he should have his name legally changed from Manly to Clarence and then submit the two documents. Since Tad had never liked and never used the name Clarence, he had his name legally changed to Tad. Which left the second and third generation Clarences without the original one.

  24. I think Alexandra is the female variant of Alexander, not Sandra. My grandmother was named Catherine Alexandra after her mother Catherine and her father Alexander.

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