Monday, July 15, 2013

What's In A Name?

The Christmas project involves our great grandparents during the period from 1800 to 1850. That is a fairly narrow range of time but still involves a large number of greats – they keep multiplying exponentially.  I have a fascination with names – what they mean, where they came from, etc. Names, it seems, have always been faddy.  After making-up boys and girl lists I find that most popular by far is – ta da – John.
Of the thirty men I’m working on for the project – 1/3 – yes, 10 of the men are named John. What’s with that?  In modern times I can only think of one John in the entire family and that was my 1st cousin – and he was called ‘Jackie’ when I knew him as a child. 

Jack, for some reason, is the nickname for John. Why? I Googled it and came up with an interesting little article explaining why John is Jack and 9 other names with nicknames that seem unrelated, such as Richard and Dick.  Check it out at with that puzzle solved, I’m wondering why so many things are called John and some of them derogatory?
A bathroom or toilet is called a john – as in “I’m going to the john.”  (Answer here: )  Why are prostitute’s customers called John? Well, maybe that answers itself – if John is the most popular name for the time, then it would follow that more customers are called John!  And, why ‘John’ Doe, ‘John’ Q Public, etc. – check it out:

John must have been super popular between 1800 and 1850. Coming in second on our family list is Samuel with three.  During this period the vast majority of our population was church going; and often they named their children after people in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
They hoped that their sweet little baby bundle would grow up to emulate their namesake. Well, in some cases this may be true, but by 1800 it is most likely to have been in the family for generations, picked by a distant ancestor for that reason and then it became part of the family naming tradition.  

Here are the other Biblical names for our group of ancestors.  Beside John and Samuel there are two each of Peter, Joseph, and Isaiah.  We have one each of Andrew, Aquilla (or Aquila), Isaac, Obediah (or Obadiah), and Stephen. Chances are the non-Biblical names were popular in the middle ages. We have one each of: Anson, George, Henry, and Robert. 

I haven’t really addressed middle names.  We don’t know all of them, and many may not have had one. Using middle names for people other than nobility is a fairly recent tradition. With the growth of the population it became more important to be able to distinguish which John you meant – therefore, we have John Henry, and John Phillip, Mary Ann and Mary Jane.

What is the most popular female name of our greats from 1800-1850 – Elizabeth (3). This name was also from the Bible and sometimes spelled Elisabeth.  It has a huge number of variations and nicknames. Without taking an official count of our entire family tree for all ages I would say that our most popular names for all time are: Elizabeth, Isabel, and Margaret.  I found this surprising – and I love them. My maternal grandmother was Margaret. I’ve now done enough of her family tree to see who she might have been named after.  My mother’s middle name was Margaret after her mother.  Had I known our family history naming tradition when I had daughters I might have named them these rather royal names.  Hm – which one would get Elizabeth. . .?

Other Biblical names for the women: Susannah, Anna (or Ann), and Mary with 2 each, followed by Esther, Sarah, Mary Ann, and Dorcas with one each. Parents may have been more willing to give their daughters the current or popular names of the time.  Those with non-Biblical names with one each are: Eunice, Amanda, Alvira, Tacy, Jane, Nancy, Christina, Easter (possibly a misspelled Esther), Ellen, and Jean. Which brings us back to John, as Jean is the French version of the male name John.

I’ve looked up the meaning for each name and hope to include them in my book. I’m encouraged, I’m making progress!


  1. Hi Sandy -- I'm reading your blog with much interest. . . . fom Susan

  2. fun information! It is nice to have a history of family names. It is surprising that some of them didn't get passed down to one of us.


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