What’s in a (family) name?

My grandmother Sylvia Mae (Turnbull) Rohrbach.

I have always enjoyed musing on names and their origins. The dictionary we had in my childhood home had a back-of-the-book listing of “common English names.” I read it voraciously and repeatedly, making lists of potential names for my future children.

As it turned out, my husband and I chose family names for our children, so all that dictionary research was unnecessary. My daughter, Emma, was named for her great-grandmother and great-great-great-grandmother, and my son, Samuel, for my father and great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandfather. (See “The Name Game.”)

My sisters Judy and Sandy Rohrbach

A recent family funeral led to the rare reunion of all my nieces and nephews from various parts of the country. It also led to more musing on names, because there I learned of the continuation of another naming tradition in my family. My late sister, Sandra Mae, was named for her two grandmothers, Sandra Eliina Matalamäki and Sylvia Mae Turnbull. Another of my sisters chose family middle names for her children’s middle names; she chose Mae for her oldest daughter. She gave her youngest the middle name Ellen—same as another of my sisters, Judith Ellen—and that niece of mine in turn gave her daughter the middle name Mae.

I was surprised to learn that the current bearers of the middle names Ellen and Mae did not know where the name Mae originated. Now that I find myself in the position of family matriarch and keeper of stories, I was able to explain that it came from my grandmother Sylvia Mae. And, like any good genealogist who enjoys boring family with too many details, I promised to send charts showing all the relationships.

It pleases me greatly that this naming tradition continues, and I hope someday someone else in the family will be Something Mae. But now I want to find out more. Was Sylvia Mae in fact the first Mae? Her mother, Orella (Turnbull) Turnbull, has been somewhat elusive in my research, but I’ve recently begun to discover more about her. Perhaps she named her daughter after the prevailing fashion, but might she have been Orella Mae? I wonder.

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

31 thoughts on “What’s in a (family) name?

  1. Loved your comment about being the matriarch and sending charts to family members. I certainly relate to that. Good luck with tracing down the origin of “Mae”. My mother’s middle name was May, but I don’t believe it was a family name. Maybe I’d better check, though!

  2. Thanks, Penny – I’ve found that the traditions of naming in honor of a previous generation also helps out in the research end of things when there may be more than one candidate for who someone’s parents may be. The males with their Jr, III, etc… structure means that *usually* paternity is pretty obvious; for the females, though, seeing a previous generation (mother or grandmother, usually) with the same first name can be a very helpful clue. I’m Sarah (Elisabeth), my maternal grandmother was Sarah (Adelaide), and her maternal grandmother was Sarah (Augusta). As the keeper of the family heirlooms, I’m lucky enough to have Sarah Augusta’s old journals from about 1864-1908 and am working on transcribing them – what a different life THAT Sarah had, given that she was born around 1845.

  3. Family names among my distant ancestors has been very challenging as they included Mennonites who frequently repeated the same given names and “being outside the Reformed Church established by the state, did not have their baptisms, marriages, and deaths recorded in the church books. They lived in a sense beyond the law.” (Quote from “A Survey of Immigrants of the Haldeman Family of Switzerland to Montgomery, Chester and Lancaster Counties, Pennsylvania, before 1750” by The Rev. Carl Thurman Smith, FGSP). I’ve had to carefully look for any variation which might have existed from one generation to the next. However, many of my more recent family members carry names from fondly remembered grandparents or aunts and uncles, which are usually varied enough to easily distinguish them. Of course, when naming children, parents don’t think about helping future genealogists to keep them sorted.

    1. You’re right about parents not thinking about genealogists when naming their children–if only they’d check with us first! I was thinking also about gravestones at this recent funeral: why don’t people put maiden names on them?

  4. Penny,

    I love your post. Growing up I hated my first name, because it was so unusual. I’m named after my father’s younger sister, and yes, I grew to love the name as I grew to love her. Most of the rest of the “named after” seems to be on my mother’ Norwegian side. Or maybe it’s just easier to see there. My middle name is Rae, my mother Rachel’s nickname. She never knew anyone at all with her name, but when I began to do genealogy, I learned that her Norwegian grandmother was Rachel. There are too few women in the younger generations in the family for there to be a younger Rachel, but if I had a daughter, she would have been Rachel. And of course it’s now a fairly common name. My brother Henry, always called Hank, is named after our grandfather Henry, Henrik in Norway, named after his father and multiple Henriks generations back. There are also many men in the family named Hans, another form of the same name. Once the family emigrated to America in 1890, there are multiple men named John, a translation of Hans. The surname got changed to Harrison, and there are a couple of small boys on the maternal side who got Harrison as a first name. It’s now a popular name, too. My grandmother is Anna; one cousin is Anne and my sister’s middle name is Anne, both in Grandma’s honor. Two generations down is a Margaret Anna Freya; her father’s Icelandic, thus the name of the goddess of power and strength. This little girl has it in spades! Anna is after her great great grandmother, and Margaret after her great grandmother. The one name that hasn’t been used at all in any form is that of my oldest aunt Orpha. I think in that case her parents were trying to Americanize her mother’s Norwegian name Ophelia. And I agree that following women’s first names is one clue to hunting surnames.


    1. What interesting names in your family!

      I too hated my given name, Penelope, for years–I wanted to be Carol or Susan or Linda or Patty. Now I’m grateful for it, even though it is not a family name. And now it’s a popular name–but I had a long wait for that to happen!

  5. I love your post. My first name Mae was gifted from my paternal grandmother and my middle name, Lorraine was my mother’s name. I have found it very helpful in my genealogy research to be mindful of the childrens names when doing a family’s research for clues to grandparents.

  6. My husband and I named our son Gordon, unusual for the 1970s. It was the name of my father-n-law’s beloved brother who had died at 14. Only after getting into genealogy did I learn that the name Gordon hop skips up the tree all the way back to 1731 to Gurdion, followed by three Gurdons and some Gordons.
    Also, I’m using a family naming pattern as a clue that may hopefully break down my most stubborn brick wall. The furthest back Whitmore ancestor was Francis, born 1625 in England and immigrated to Massachusetts Colony as a child. Was he the nephew of a rather prominent Francis I’ve found in England? Francis the immigrant named his two sons Francis and John; and for many, many subsequent generations those two names always were given to sons. I am trying to find if a John Whitmore, who immigrated to the American colonies and is the right age to be Francis 1625’s father, truly was his father. AND was this John a brother of Francis in England?

    1. Isn’t it interesting how a family name emerges from research? The same happened to me with my son’s name. And I’m doing what you’re doing now with John and Francis, but with the names George and Thomas.

  7. I wrote story several years ago about how I got
    My middle name, Loring. I am the aunt and disseminator of ancestral information. Using NEHGS records and traditional research methods,
    I developed the story. The other Loring loved it.


    1. Here’s to traditional research methods! Did your name come from the New England surname Loring? There are many Lorings around here, and I was just now driving on Loring Avenue.

  8. Penny, my grandmother had one of those dictionaries at her house, too and I loved it – looked at it for hours and gave some of the names to my paper dolls. I wish I still had it now to show my own family.

  9. I have lots of name stories (including the Scots who repeated names in a pattern, constantly) but one is the name “Mehetable” (various spellings). I recently realized that this name follows through 5 generations of one branch of my family (once as a middle name) before disappearing altogether. In a way, it is cool but I’m kind of relieved the name didn’t make it all the way to my generation. Another name “Tresham” has been in the family since before 1800 – as a surname, a first name, and a middle name.

    1. Yes, a name like Mehetable is nice to see in historical records but probably not on one’s own birth certificate! What would the nickname for that be? Mabel? Mettie??
      I’ve never heard the name Tresham–how interesting. Thanks for sharing, Janice.

      1. In at least one or two instances, I’ve seen the nickname “Hattie” or “Hettie” for Mehetable. I think “Tresham” is an old English name. There was once a “Sir Thomas Tresham” who was persecuted for his Catholic faith. Family lore is that our family are descendants – but I can’t get all of the paper trail!

  10. Someone should write a book on naming patterns. It could useful, but it would also be a Lot of work! Various cultures and religious groups all had their versions, in addition to some we genealogists love. Like the maiden name of a mother being given as the middle name of a child, both male and female. I have found a few like this that were very ordered for two or three generations.

  11. I was thrilled when our daughter named our grandson after my father, William Frederick Arnold.Through research, I discovered that my father’s uncle, was named Willliam, and that his grandfather, a Civil War veteran and hatter from South Norwalk, Ct., was named Frederick. Strangely enough, although we have always lived in NY and the Midwest, my daughter’s family now lives in Fairfield County, just a few miles from where her ancestors on both my maternal and paternal sides migrated to in the 1600’s, so now I’m sharing these newly discovered family connections and stories with them as we visit historic sites.

    1. Yes, isn’t that fun when you discover deeper history of a name than you expected? And what a rich experience it must be to share ancestral stories with your family right where they lived.

  12. My nephew named his son Henry — not even realizing that it was a common name in his maternal grandmother and great-grandfather’s family.
    We named our daughter Megan — after my mother Margaret Anne. I didn’t want to repeat the name of a living relative, but wanted to honor my mother. Not until I got into genealogy did I realize the family significance of her 2 names…her mother’s twin sister (who died young) and mother. And my aunt Jean seems to be named after great-aunt Genevieve (always called Gene…). Family naming was strong in that line. We also have a plethora of Dorothys.

    1. What an interesting story–thanks for sharing! (I love the phrase “plethora of Dorothys.”)

  13. On my mom’s side of the family, we have a long tradition of naming boys “Sherman” either as a first or a middle name. It goes back to our ancestress Lucy Sherman, who married Job Shaw in Middleboro, Mass., in 1788. Bequeathing’s Lucy’s maiden name as a given name for boys began with mom’s ancestor Manly Sherman Shaw (Lucy’s youngest son), but it also appears several times in the families of other children of Lucy. In our own branch, the name Sherman next came to Manly Sherman’s grandson Sherman Linn Shaw, then to his son Sherman Linn Shaw II (my grandfather), and then to one of my older brothers, who got it as a middle name. But Manly Sherman Shaw’s youngest son Egbert also named his son Sherman Manly Shaw, and his son bore the same name, and then his sons and grandsons in turn have continued to bestow the name. (Lucy belonged to a branch of the Shermans of Dedham, Essex, England, whose ancestry is known back to the 1500s — a nice long line of Shermans in our family!)

    As for the name “Mae,” that was my great-grandmother’s middle name. She gave it to her daughter, my grandmother — but the clerk/registrar who filled out her birth certificate heard her wrong, and so wrote “Mary” in the middle name blank. That was immediately corrected, though. I can imagine my great-grandmother said, “No, not Mary, May” — and so the “r” was crossed out on the certificate. Grandma always spelled it “Mae,” though. And when I first asked Grandma how to spell her middle name, she got kind of wry smile on her face and answered coyly, “Well, how do *you* think it should be spelled?”

    We both agreed it’s “Mae,” not “May.”

    1. What a long, line of Shermans you have. I like your Mae story–has that name been passed to any descendant of your grandmother’s?

      1. Sorry for missing your comment last year. There aren’t any Maes among my grandmother’s descendants yet — but my mother’s middle name was Frances, her mother’s first name, and my wife and I have bestowed Frances up one of our the daughters as a middle name.

  14. The surname name Hollister has been in our family since my gr gr grandmother
    Adaline Hollister, daughter of Charles, married Nelson Ramsdell in 1842. My uncle was Charles Hollister Rathbun and his son a Jr. I planned on naming our 2nd child Hollister as a 1st name whether a boy or a girl. Our oldest daughter was horrified that if a girl, her little sister would have that “weird” name. It was a daughter. And to make peace in the family we named her Melissa Hollister Claypool. Growing up, she thanked her sister all the time that Melissa was her 1st name. When she had her 1st daughter, guess what? Her 1st name is Hollister.

    1. I love that story! Funny how your daughter came around to the idea of Hollister as a first name. (I think I recognize the family names you mention. Hope you’re doing well!)

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