Friday, May 13, 2005

What’s in a Name?


Usually the inspiration for a column comes from one of my dear reader’s research problems. This one came from a more closely related source – namely my middle grandson, TJ, otherwise known as Treven Joseph.

I’ve been babysitting here in Phoenix, so the boy’s mom & dad could celebrate their anniversary out of town. On the first night I tucked this precious little one into bed. Walking away to turn out the light and close the door, I said (in my most grandmotherly tone of voice) “I love you sweetheart.”

TJ looked up at me with his innocent, yet mischievous terrible twos eyes and interjected (in his most emphatic 2 ½ year old grandson voice) “I’m not sweetheart – I am cutie patootie!”

You can imagine how this delighted my very soul and melted my knees, as I bent to give him another kiss or two in a futile attempt to stifle my uncontrollable giggles!

So what does this have to do with genealogy? Well, you can bet that our ancestors were just as adamant about what people should call them. Who cares what it says on the christening record in the parish registry, passenger arrival or census record? Names weren’t standardized until the Social Security Administration came into existence in the 20th century in the USA.

NICKNAMES – Suppose your ancestor was named William Charles Smith. He could have been called Smitty, Chuck, Charlie, Will, Willie and such. At least these nicknames have some root in the true given names.

NO NAME BASIS FOR IT – But that same ancestor could have been known to all the world as Shorty (because of his height), Tiny (because of his size), or even Spike (because of his basketball prowess.)

LOCAL COLLOQUILISISMS – It wasn’t uncommon during the 1800s in the South to refer to a revered elderly male member of the community as ‘Colonel’ though he may never have set foot on a field of battle. Ol’ Myrt here even noticed in Time magazine a few weeks ago that a woman had actually been honored as a “Kentucky Colonel.”

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT – As a young child in the 1950s, we lived on Perkins Lane in Seattle. One of our neighbors was “Uncle Arnold.” Neither he, nor his then quite frightening wall-mounted hunting trophies have a place in our family tree. Mom & Dad just had us call him that.

SPELLING MAY BE DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU’D EXPECT – There is a pop-culture singer’s name that sounds a lot like my favorite candy, M&Ms but has a distinctly different spelling. Call me crazy, but I prefer the chocolate covered candies to the singer’s lyrics. But that is just dating me, I guess.

NAMES THAT AREN’T REALLY NAMES – I guess if you were famous, someone else would compile your genealogy. For 4th great-grandchildren of “The artist formerly known as Prince” at least there is a court record of the various name changes.

THAT WAS THEN THIS IS NOW - Identifying an ancestor by his or her nickname can become difficult unless you lived during the same time period and were aware of prevailing naming practices. In the nineteenth century, any kindly member of the community could be called “cousin” without reference to a legitimate ancestral connection.

Now, fast forward to the 20th century. Remember nicknames like Skip, Muffy, & Bif? These weren’t just extended vocabulary to challenge graduates of the “Dick & Jane” books. People actually liked going by those nicknames, I guess.

Take that into the 21st century and all bets are off. People have been reduced to initials, which perhaps once meant something, but now merely facilitate IM messages sent via pc and cell phones.

Oh well, how’s a grandmother to keep up?

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
6023 26th Street West PMB 352
Bradenton, FL 34207

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