A Rose by Any Other Name: 5 Tips for Using Onomastics in Your Research

23 Apr 2013


Sometimes when researching our ancestors we need to rely on onomastic evidence. Naming patterns can be very helpful in proving relationships. Unfortunately, many of the so-called “rules” of naming children are not hard and fast rules.

1. In New England, it is often said that in colonial times, the rule for naming one’s children goes as follows:

  • First son for husband’s father
  • First daughter for wife’s mother
  • Next son for wife’s father
  • Next daughter for husband’s mother
  • Next son for husband
  • Next daughter for wife

Other children would be named for the siblings of the husband or wife, etc. While this is a lovely fantasy, it is far from true. Sometimes people named their children in this pattern. But just as often it is completely random. If you have no idea who the parents of a couple are, the names of the children can be used as clues. However, do not use the “rule of naming” as a hard and fast rule. It is at least equally likely that the third or fourth son might be named for the husband’s father.

2. In addition to familial names, children were often given the name of a strong Biblical figure, such as Josiah or Samuel. Puritans often named their children after virtues such as Temperance.

3. Those with Catholic ancestors know that the church has some rules. The current Catholic Catechism says:

“In Baptism, the Christian receives his name in the Church. Parents, godparents, and the pastor are to see that he be given a Christian name. The patron saint provides a model of charity and the assurance of his prayer.”

In addition to saints, names from the Old Testament are often used. Take note of the name used, and look of the history of that saint or Biblical figure. This often

4. While middle names are uncommon among American Protestants until the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Catholics often carried multiple first names even back in the sixteenth century.

5. Those researching their French-Canadian ancestors will notice a pattern in naming practices. First is that almost everyone is baptized with multiple first names. The one that appeared closest to the surname is the one that, for the most part, they used in everyday life. The first name given in baptism was almost always Joseph for boys and Marie for girls (for the parents of Jesus). Then other names would follow.

For example, my paternal grandfather was Joseph Alfred Leclerc. He went by Fred or Freddie his entire life. Unfortunately, at the end of his life, a new priest was assigned to the parish. At his funeral, most of us knew that Fred was probably about to burst up through the coffin and smack the priest. The priest kept talking about what a good guy old Joe was and how much we would miss him. My grandfather absolutely hated the name Joe.

In addition to Joseph and Marie, the child would often take the name of the godparent (godfather for boys, godmother for girls). The grandparents would often serve as godparents for the first child (or later children). One nice thing is that any familial relationship between the child and the godparents is usually given in the record.

Keep these tips in mind when using onomastics for researching your ancestors. While they can be used as additional evidence, there are no hard and fast, unbreakable rules.