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Genealogy- Old: Names: What's In A Name?

Information about Names

Identifying Variant Spellings

Sources for Surname Associations

Immigration and Names

What's In A Name? Tips on Searching for Personal Names in Genealogical Resources

Names Question (click image for the "key")

Of all the problems encountered in genealogical research, names are some of the toughest.

Here you will find some common problems you may encounter and some tips for working with them.

Common Situations When Researching Personal Names

Page from 1920 Census

1. Different Persons with the Same Name

Relatives can have the same surname and given names. Children can be named after relatives, living or dead. First names may even be repeated in the same family in the same generation. If a child died young, the next child of the same sex may be given the same name.

Many cultures believe in honoring their elders by naming children after them.

Pay attention to religious or ethnic or national practices. Use genealogy guides to learn about the culture and society.

In some cases, repetition of names follows a formal pattern.

Example of a common naming pattern (from In Search of Your British and Irish Roots. Link to description.)

  • First son was named after the father’s father
  • Second son – the mother’s father
  • Third son – the father
  • Fourth son – the father’s eldest brother
  • First daughter – the mother’s mother
  • Second daughter – the father’s mother
  • Third daughter – the mother
  • Fourth daughter – the mother’s eldest sister

Example of common religious naming pattern (from 18th Century PA German Naming Customs)

Children might be given a "spiritual" (or saint’s) name and a "secular" name (a use or call name, Rufnamen). All the children of the same gender might have the same first name. Johan (Johann, John) and Georg (George) were popular for boys and Anna (Ann), Catherine, and Maria (Mary) were popular for girls.

Johan Geog, Johan Frederick, Johan Jacob. Each of these people would use their “middle” name as their given name.

There are coincidences; be careful not to make too many assumptions.

Person marries someone with the same last name. Man has a wife and sister with same name. Man's first and second wives had same name.

2. Same Person with Different Names

"Your" person's name may be written or spelled in various ways in different records.

  • Bad or difficult to interpret handwriting
  • Bad copying
  • Damaged or difficult to read documents
  • Illiteracy
  • Spelling variations; spelling wasn’t “fixed”
  • Phonetic spellings
  • Translations – sometimes people used a translation of their name; Stein becomes Stone; Zimmerman becomes Carpenter (especially common with occupational or place names)
  • Transliteration rules change. Names in different languages and different alphabets (transliteration: to represent or spell in the characters of another alphabet). Example of Russian names: the name first written as Chaikovski was later written as Tchaikovsky
  • People change their names and the spelling of their names for various reasons, such as to americanize (latinize, anglicize, or otherwise change) names
  • And sometimes people just change their names
  • Not everyone in the same family may choose the same spelling
  • Jr. and Sr. – these do not always mean a father and son of the same name. Could be uncle/nephew, cousins, or two unrelated individuals with the same name. A Delaware example: Gunning Bedford, Jr. (a signer of the U.S. Constitution), was the younger cousin of Gunning Bedford (a governor of Delaware). Both were active in Delaware politics after the American Revolution. They adopted the Jr. and Sr. to avoid confusion.

Note: it is often stated that family names were deliberately changed by Immigration officials at Ellis Island. But studies show that this is overstated. Changes could have been due to bad communication, transliteration, phonetic spellings, people wanting an American name, etc.

3. Nicknames

4. Abbreviations

Records will often use abbreviations for names that were common in those times. Additionally, there may be alternate forms. William=Wm. or Wm or Thomas=Tho. or Thom.

5. Problems with Researching Women Ancestors

6. Gender Names

Gender names – names that specify a sex.

Some names have masculine and feminine forms. But not all instances of these names follow any "rules." Marion is usually masculine and Marian is usually feminine. But not always.

Non-gendered or unisex names – names that do not specify a gender or could be either. Bailey, Dale, and other names give no clue whether the person is male or female.

7. Different Names that Sound Alike

Names like Aaron and Erin that sound alike can cause problems.

8. Other

First name could be last name

  • Lewis
  • Paul

No fixed last names (last names built on fathers' names; patronymics)

  • Andersson, son of Anders (Scandanavian)
  • Sigurdardottir, daughter of Sigurd (Scandanavian)


Be alert, be aware.


Know your family. Don't neglect the collateral lines (brothers, sisters, etc., not in your direct line of descent). Brothers, sisters, cousins, etc., often named their children for each other. Look for patterns.

Educate yourself:

  • National/ethnic/religious customs. Lineage associations. Genealogy guides can provide information about the culture and society.
  • Meanings of names. Dictionaries of names and other sources of information about Names
  • History of country. Example: Alsace "changed hands" between France and Germany.
  • Handwriting differs over time. Guides to handwriting and penmanship.


Make a surname list with spelling variations. Keep good notes on what you have searched and what spellings you searched where.

Help for finding variant spellings:

Think of possible phonetic spellings, say the names out loud, ask someone else how they would spell the name.

See left box: Identifying Variant Spellings

Surname resources and family histories: is there a published genealogy on your family? Is there a surname association or society? Is anyone researching your name?

Surnames, Family Associations, & Family Newsletters (Cyndi’s List)


Try varying your search strategies. (Ancestry offers these possibilities)

  • Search with fields (e.g., last/first name) rather than keyword or search by keywords instead of last/first name fields
  • Search by first name instead of surname
  • Use middle name or initial (or initials for first and middle names)
  • Omit last name and search by place or name of relative
  • Place only. Browse by area and examine all schedules (only works for a small area)

Soundex (sounds like)

  • Formal – Soundex refers to a system of coding names used to index records for the 1880, 1900, and 1920 Censuses. The indexing was not complete for the 1880 Census. Work done in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Later: in the 1960s, a similar coding system called Miracode was used for the 1910 Census, but did not include all states.
  • Informal – some search systems (example: Ancestry Library Edition) provide a “soundex search” they have devised
  • Create your own list (and add to your surname search list)

Special search features:


  • An asterisk * matches zero or more characters – so Ann* matches Ann, Anne, Anna, Annabelle, etc. La*rence matches Lawrence and  Laurence
  • A question mark ? matches one character – so Ann? matches Anne or Anna

Fuzzy searching (“Did you mean?” – word roots or spelling variations). Used by Google, other search engines, and some databases. Example: search for Phillipines in Google.


Search the same information in other databases or the old print indexes or on microfilm. Different indexes or formats may omit names or interpret handwriting differently.

Be creative.


"A Rose by any other name might be called Polly, Molly or Maude."

"Deciphering The First, Middle and Nicknames of our Ancestors." By Kathy Jones-Kristof. [Webpage no longer available.]


There are many common nicknames. Knowing nicknames can help you identify or verify individuals.

Agnes Aggie, Nancy (a Scottish tradition)
Andrew Andy, Drew
Edward or Edwin Ed, Ted, Ned
Eleanor Elle, Ellie, Ellen, Helen, Nell, Nellie, Nora, Lenora
Elizabeth or Elisabeth Beth, Betty, Bess, Betsy, Libby, Liz, Lizzie, Lizzy, Eliza, Liza
Margaret Peg, Peggy, Maggie, Madge, Margie, Midge, Mitzi, Meg, Daisy, Rita, Margo, Greta
Martha Patsy, Patty, Mattie
Mary Molly, Polly, Mae, May, Mamie, Marie
Nancy Ann, Nan, Agnes
Sarah Sally, Sallie, Sadie
III (meaning the third) Tre, Trey, Terry


Ethnic and National Background

Sometimes a choice of nickname comes from the family's background. In Scottish custom, an Agnes might be called Nancy.


As always, use good judgment and multiple sources in your research. Example: you can't always assume that a name is a nickname for another name. Sometimes Sallie is just Sallie.

More about Nicknames

Ship Passenger Lists

Passenger list of the ship Holland.

[List 413] List of Passengers on board the Ship Holland, Christoph Francklin, Junior, Commander. Aug. 19, 1796.

Many of the German given names are listed as French versions of the names.

(Pennsylvania German Pioneers, Strassburger, pp. 85-88)

Genealogy Resources at the University of Delaware Library

Family tree

Although not aimed at genealogy and family history, the collections of the University of Delaware Library (Morris Library) include materials useful to genealogists and family historians.

This Genealogy Research Guide is provided as a service for genealogists. It presents topics and resources to assist researchers.

The UD Library does not specialize in genealogy and does not have staff responsible for genealogy. Library staff cannot conduct research.

For questions about library resources and holdings, use the Ask the Library service.

For questions about getting research assistance, see the suggestions on the home page of this guide or on the topic/resources pages.