ICYMI: The name game

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 22 May 2017.]

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.

13 thoughts on “ICYMI: The name game

  1. My mother told me I was named Mary after the Virgin Mary as after three boys, two of whom were twins and real rascals, she prayed for a girl. It so happened that I carry each of my grandmother’s names, Mary & Alice, so maybe mom was just kidding me.
    Mary Alice Maher Boehnlein, Ph.D.

  2. Caroline Scott Harrison was the wife of Benjamin Harrison, so presidential indeed, although with the name Scott Harrison, he should have gone to Miami University.

  3. Thanks, Lindsay. I love your story. Too often these days parents seem to be giving their children made-up, hard to spell names that have no history or significance other than just to be different.

    I have four children and naming each of them was a long thoughtful process. For the most part, they turned out to be very much like their names meant. And they have names that carry on family names. I have a great nephew named Harrison. His parents just liked the name, but they were surprised and pleased when I showed them a picture of my 2nd great grandfather who was named Harrison. So the younger Harrison shares a name with his 4th great grandfather.

  4. My first name, Maria, was after a 1950’s movie star Maria Montez, whom my father adored. My middle name, Lynn, was because is sounded like the end of my mother’s maiden name, Ruland. My husband is Ronald Lee. When he was born, his parents didn’t have a name picked out and needed one before leaving the hospital. My MIL picked up a magazine and movie star Ronald Reagan was on the cover…Ronald is was. Lee was just because it sounded good.

  5. You made me think about my families naming patterns. When my grandparents came to this county their children had all been named after themselves or their parents. However, when my mother was born in the USA she was named Mary, which is not a family name at all. This started a trend and most of my siblings and cousins were not given family names. I do have three cousins that may have been named after Aunts, but that is the nearest I could come to any naming patterns. This appears to be a complete disconnect from the old world habits. Thank you for the interesting article.

  6. My sister, Ann Kent, got her middle name from the dormitory our mother lived in at college. Somewhat related, I knew a family long ago that named their three children John, Philip and Sousa.

  7. This article got me to thinking of our family names, etc. so recorded all the information about names & reasons for them I could remember & shared with the group. My brother’s initials are D.A.M. & he delighted in using his full name on school papers & of course under-lined each first letter.. .

  8. Our daughter was named Katherine Elisabeth after my sister and known as Kate because my mother always wanted to call her daughter Kate rather than Kathy. My wife’s grandmother was also a Kate. We chose Elisabeth as a middle name because it seemed to go well with Katherine. Elizabeth is also my sister-in-law’s middle name.

    My own middle name, Clinton, is also my paternal grandfather’s middle name. I’m pleased they didn’t choose his first name as it was Peryl.

  9. I, too, have a Scottish name — Laurie — because my Dad was proud of his Scottish heritage. It was another 50 years or so before he actually traced his heritage to John Bean of Exeter, who was among a group of Scottish prisoners transported to America in 1651. Little did he know that an offshoot of the Bean clan takes us back to Stephen Hopkins and the Mayflower!

  10. My name Margaret goes back at least 6 generations on both sides. My parents used family names or saints names for their 10 children. Think Thomas Aquinas or Elizabeth Ann Seton. In November 1964, canonization for JFK seemed imminent to my parents. Today my brother John Kennedy is a Republican and he chose a different middle name for his son.

  11. The first birth announcement my father handed mom to sign while still in hospital had my full name as Loma Linda Lee, after my mother’s best friend, Loma Linda. Mom decided that was just too alliterative, so I became Linda Carol Lee, with Carol being my mother’s middle name, by which she was called. She, in turn, was named Georgia Carol, Georgia being the name of her father’s first love, a cousin he was discouraged from marrying because his parents were first cousins. I have often wondered what her mother, my grandma, knew of that story. She died bearing her third child, so I never knew her.

    1. I was named for the actress Rita Hayworth, and my middle name came from my grandmother’s middle name, Mae. So I was named Rita Mae (or may not!).

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