What’s in a name

Estelle Bell with Fred and Nancy revised
Estelle Jackson Bell with her children Frances Fairfax Bell and Fred Jackson Bell

According to the Book of Genesis, one of the first things Adam did was to give the things around him names: to name is to exert power – and to give it. An example of this in my own family comes to mind, and with it comes a far longer history than I think my parents or my grandparents knew.

When my sister was born, my maternal grandparents’ second grandchild and first granddaughter, my grandmother assumed that the baby would be named for her: Pauline. As I mentioned yesterday, my mother’s first name was a moving target: it was at one time Pauline, at another Fairfax, until it crystallized as Barbara. I suspect my grandfather didn’t care for it, even though it was his wife’s and (perhaps more relevant?) his mother-in-law’s first name. In any case, with that history behind it, my grandmother expected my sister to be named for her.

Now, I am not a junior – my parents named me for my father, but gave me his first name as my middle name. With that precedent in mind, they named my sister Margaret Fairfax Steward, neatly honoring the Steward side – Margaret Atherton Beeckman was my father’s grandmother – and the Bell side, as my grandfather’s sister was born Frances Fairfax Bell. Done and done – but not so fast!

Pauline with Scott
With my Grandmother Bell

I’m too young to remember this, but apparently World War III broke out over Meg’s first name. Not only was it not Pauline, honoring a beloved grandparent, but it was – horrors! – German. For all the long history in English-speaking countries of using the name Margaret and its variants, my grandmother took the position that her granddaughter was being named for some unidentified German on my father’s side of the family, and all communication ceased for the next two years.

My Grandmother Bell was educated in Belgium just after the First World War, and she traveled around Europe in the 1920s. Her prejudice is illogical, however, and not just for all the obvious reasons: it was she who was the granddaughter of a German immigrant, not a Frenchman as she always claimed. My mother always understood that the Bouchers were French, and direct descendants of the painter François Boucher (1703–1770) at that, but the family also carefully preserved William Boucher Jr.’s 1845 passport, issued by the Grand Duchy of Baden.

Margaret Beeckman Steward with daughters cropped
Margaret Beeckman Steward with her daughters Margaret and Katherine

As for the name Margaret, I have traced it through the Beeckman, Foster, Atherton, Weeks, Gooding, Davenport, Snelling, Greene, and Polden families back to a Margaret born in the fifteenth century. We are not actually entitled to the name Fairfax, although it has been used by the Bell and Steward families for more than a century: my Great-Grandmother Bell named her daughter for a first cousin, the mellifluously-named Nell Virginia (Randolph) Fairfax, and then my grandparents and parents used the name in their turn. The name Pauline was first used in the 1850s for my great-great-aunt Mary Pauline Boucher, who died in infancy, and was then reused for my great-grandmother (Pauline’s half-sister), my grandmother, and (briefly) my mother.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

4 thoughts on “What’s in a name

  1. Great story Scott! Indeed it is amazing the “power” names hold over families. I used to think I was immune to such social conventions – however as we are expecting our first grandchild at the end of this coming July – I find I am not so different than your grandmother. The baby on its way is a girl, and it is my hope that she receives a name that will honor ANY side of the family at this point!

    Three cheers for your grandmother!!!

    Best regards,

    J. Record

  2. Dearest Scott,
    How delightful to read all of this here (and as always, I learned at least one new piece of the story). Thank you for including me, and elucidating the power of names!
    With love,
    Margaret Fairfax Steward Campbell

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.