What's in a Name?
Today we tend to be quite particular about the spelling of our family name; it feeds into our sense of identity and heritage and we feel that the name has always been set down that way. As a professional genealogist I’ve come up against some opposition when I’ve listed the variants of a name I’ve found in the records. People are sure that they’re ‘Browne with an e’ or it’s always been McDonald not ‘Mac’ and so on.
These days we have a multiplicity of ID documents so it’s vitally important that there’s consistency in name spelling. What difficulties it would cause in the twenty-first century to have variants of your name on your passport, driving licence or national insurance card!
However, when we delve into genealogical records we find that names can appear in different forms in different entries. My birth name was ‘Hirst’ but my Hirst family in Dundee flipped from Hirst to Hurst and back again with abandon. So every time I search for an event I have to search twice. And that’s quite an easy one, there could be half a dozen or more variants of some names.
A family name identifies us and came into common use in the Middle Ages as populations grew and we needed more than a first name to properly identify individuals. It was no longer enough to have first name + occupation, physical characteristic or relationship to someone else. It was also a signifier of status - family names were first used by aristocrats, then by landowning gentry and down the social ladder to the common man. In his introduction in The Surnames of Scotland, George F Black dates surnames to France circa 1000 and they were introduced into Scotland via the Normans about one hundred years later. At a general council held in Falkirk in 1061 the king (Malcolm Canmore) directed his chief subjects to adopt surnames from their territorial possessions. The people living and working on the clan chief’s lands or otherwise associated with the clan for military purposes would generally take the chief’s surname. Other surnames would develop from occupation, locations, family relationships or physical characteristics.
Surnames/ family names were given to men; women to this day have a male relative’s name. It’s worth bearing in mind that in Scotland there has never been any legal obligation for a woman to change her name on marrying. In your searches you’ll find women listed under either birth name or married name or both, and both should be listed on the death certificate.
For most of history there was no consistency in spelling. Samuel Johnston published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 which fired the starting pistol for uniformity of written language but there weren’t (and still aren’t) any rules governing the spelling of names. William Shakespeare appears to have signed his name in more than half a dozen versions. So long as there’s no attempt to commit fraud you can still spell your name any way you choose without formally changing it through deed poll. The name that appeared in official records was purely down to the individual who was writing it down. Most people were non-literate or were not used to seeing their name written down. The variant could be the official’s own personal preference, common practice or what they think they heard – unfamiliar accents may have caused problems. Names were written down by registrars, parish clerks and census enumerators who may also have been working to their own agenda in the anglicization of Gaelic and Northern Isle names.
Remember that spelling is a historically recent phenomenon, people in the past weren’t hugely interested in the spelling of the name. When they encountered officialdom they were probably eager to get the business over and done with and accepted what was written down, if indeed they ever saw it.
It’s also true that some people wished to hide from the authorities for various reasons and might have changed their name, swapped around first names or used other family names. My 3x great grandfather, George Gibson Pilmer, fought at the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean war but did so under the name George Gibson. The reason for this was that he had joined the Navy (possibly press-ganged in Leith) and later deserted. When he joined the Army he couldn’t do so under his own name.
Where does this leave the genealogist? You need to develop good search skills; don’t just enter the name as you know it, think of all the possible variants of that name and search for them. Use soundex features and wildcards. Become familiar with the given names in your family tree. These can help you decide whether a particular individual with a variant name might be one of yours. If your family is full of Marys, Elizabeths, Euphemias and Isabellas then a Rachel might stand out as an oddity. In Scotland, until relatively recently, parents adhered to a naming pattern:
- The first son was named after the father’s father
- The second son after the mother’s father.
- The third son after the father.
- The first daughter after the mother’s mother.
- The second daughter after the father’s mother.
- The third daughter after the mother.
Name variants undoubtedly make the genealogist’s search much harder, but then the element of mystery and the detective work is what makes family research exciting – and rewarding.