• The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc.

What's in a name?

Have you ever wondered why in the world our grandparents would name their baby girl Frankie or Johnnie? Or a baby boy: Ira or Whitney? There's much to be said about the rhymes and reasons for our names. Historically, the naming convention was as follows:

  • The first son was named after the father's father.
  • The second son was named after the mother's father.
  • The third son was named after the father.
  • The fourth son was named after the fathers eldest brother.
  • The first daughter was named after the mother's mother.
  • The second daughter was named after the father's mother.
  • The third daughter was named after the mother.
  • The fourth daughter was named after the mothers eldest sister.

This is not written in stone and could vary depending upon the parents as well as the number of children they had. For example, the eldest son could be named after the mother's father and the eldest daughter after the father's mother. In this case the second son would be named after the father's father and the second daughter after the mother's mother. Occasionally the second son and daughter would be named after the father and mother instead of the third son and daughter. Another variation was to name the third daughter after one of the great-grandmothers instead of after the mother. In such a case, the fourth daughter would usually be named after the mother. Also note that younger or remaining children would be named after earlier ancestors, such as great-uncles but the pattern in their case was more varied.

Another interesting thing about names that's discussed more in the Common Problems section, is that a researcher can make an educated guess about the era of a relative based upon the name. Examples below are helpful clues as to when your relatives might have lived: 17th Century (1601-1700): Charity, Faith, Grace, Patience, Temperance, were names of virtue that carried over into the 18th Century. German influence also spread throughout the colonies with the practice of double names or middle names. Biblical names such as Levi and Rebecca developed in the mid 1600's and continued to through the 1860's. 18th Century (1701-1800): Admiral, General, Major, King, Queen, Empress. Titled names carried over into the mid 19th Century. Some classical revival names might be: Fabian, Theodocia, Stephanie, Lucius, and Quentin. 19th Century (1801-1900/1914 * ): Patriotic names such as Abraham, Lincoln, Liberty and America. In the late 1800's to early 1900's, women had names of flowers and gems: Lily, Rose, Violet, Ruby, Jewel and Pearl. Naming practices also included cities and states like Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Carolina, etc. 20th Century (1901-2000): Early 20th Century names include Bessie, Claude, Helen, Edna and Albert. In the middle of the century, common names like Nancy, Gary Joyce and Dennis were not common based upon previous or later years. The 60's introduced names that may have had no historical or genealogical significance to the family. Some came from surnames while others were unisex.

Also, there was a return to the biblical naming in the last quarter of the century: Benjamin, Daniel, Matthew and Hannah to name a few. Pay attention to names that reoccur in the family. For example, Mrs. Elizabeth Jones named her children: Mary Lee and James Lee. Mary Lee named her daughter Louise Lee. James Lee named his son William Jones Lee. If you had to guess Elizabeth's maiden name, a pretty good guess would be "Lee". Early on, our families understood the need to connect and remember those that came before us. Somehow, we've lost sight of the vision they had in keeping us together via our names. Fortunately for us, we can reclaim our legacies with the same deliberate fervor for which they originally intended. * Historians sometime use "Nineteenth Century" as a label for the era stretching from 1815 (The Congress of Vienna) to 1914 (WWI).


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