What's in a Name? (Part 1)

9 Apr 2018 by Leah Klocek

A name is a human being's primary identifier.  It is the specific collection of sounds that proclaims, "I, and not another.  I, and no one else," and so it bothers us when people spell it wrong, or pronounce it wrong, or don't even bother to learn it.  As far as we are concerned, names are sacrosanct.  After my son was born, it took me months to begin calling him by his name because I was so uncomfortable with the power, the sheer presumption, of having named another human being, and so until he was almost a year old, we mostly called him, "Little Guy," "Big Guy," "Tank," "Pun'kin," "Little Froggy," and, most popularly, "Mr. Baby."  These went over quite well at the time, but I'm sure he won't appreciate them nearly as much when I use them to enroll him in high school.1

And then there are surnames.  Many people hold their surnames close to their heart.  A surname is a way of saying, "I belong to this exclusive club," and when you meet another person who belongs to the same club, you immediately assume a connection.  It hints at an origin and a long history.  A surname often seems to be one of the most obvious indicators of a person's ancestral heritage.  We believe it says something about our ancestors' lives and about their country of origin.   


Because names are so important to us on such a visceral level, two of the questions I get most often when I'm teaching have to do with names:


1) Why am I seeing different spellings of our last name/my ancestors' first names? Are these records talking about a different family? Did the last name change?

2) Am I related to everyone who shares/has shared my last name?


We'll tackle the first question in this blog post, and the second question in an upcoming blog post.


Different Spellings


I took a class that started out with the memorable words that until very recently, historically speaking, "language was oral."  Standardized education only started to take hold in the mid-late 19th century, and only became widespread in the 20th century.  Standardized spellings of names followed only after.  Most of our ancestors could not read or write, and so as far as they were concerned, their name was a purely verbal item, to be spoken and to be heard.  As long as the person saying their name seemed to have said it right, they really didn't concern themselves with how it might be written.  


This issue only grew in scope when a person immigrated to a new country.  The scribe of a record, whose level of education may have been suspect, would do their best to write down the name they heard spoken by this immigrant with a strong accent and a potentially non-existent grasp of the English language.  Even those immigrants who had the advantage of being literate in their native language were not guaranteed to speak a word of English upon arrival.  This is still true of many people native to New Jersey.  


















"Sure, that sounded like an 'sha' to me.  NEXT."

(Original image: "The Scribe," Arthur Szyk, 1927.)


In other words, there was no one way to spell a name.  The spelling you find on each record is only as good as the ears of the person who wrote it down.  Therefore, you're going to find variations on your ancestors' names in many records.  As an example, let's look briefly at the surname "Ferguson."  It's neither incredibly common nor particularly unusual.  It's a pretty standard surname, and you might have trouble imagining it being spelled that many different ways.


Here are a few of the variations that researchers have found in records for just this one surname: Fergerson, Fargerson, Furgerson, Furgeson, Fergason, Furgason, Fergeson, Fergurson, Fergusson, Forguson, Furgison, Fargason, Furgurson, Forgeson, and Furgusan.2  These are only 15 of the over 200 variations of the same name found in the United States Census.  Getting scared? You probably should be.  


In order to make sure that you find all possible records for your ancestors, you need to do two things.  Firstly, you need to keep an open mind with regards to your ancestors' surnames and recognize that if you are only searching for, or accepting as correct, one spelling, that you're going to miss out on a lot of relevant records where your ancestors' names are just spelled differently.  Secondly, you need to come up with every possible variation of the name you can think of to assist you in searching.  Sometimes you'll get lucky and someone will have created a list of variants for you, like the partial one above, but sometimes you just need to sit alone in a quiet room, sounding out the name over and over again like a crazy person, trying to catch every single sound that could potentially be written down with a different letter.


Now that we've handled spelling, let's say a few words about given names.  Oftentimes, at different points in our lives, we may go by different names.  Some of us go by nicknames, some of us choose to be known by our middle name or by our initials, some of us take a stage name or a nom de plume, and some of us even legally change our given name to something that we feel suits us better.  This isn't even counting the time in high school that you tried to sound tough and come up with a gangsta name that -- for some reason -- your cousin will not stop calling you at family reunions.  Our ancestors did much the same.  In my own recent family history, I have one grandparent who, as an adult, was known exclusively by a nickname, one great-grandparent who legally changed his name, and several great-grandparents who unofficially started going by more Americanized-sounding names once arriving in America.  Understand that first names were no more sacred to our ancestors than they are to us, and that you are likely to find at least one ancestor who went by something other than an "official" name at least during a part of his/her life.  Does that make sense, Killa-G?


That's right, your cousin told me.


This seems like as good a time as any to dispel a very prevalent myth that most of us were taught in school; we've all heard how our ancestors' surnames used to be something different, but that their name was forcibly changed at Ellis Island by unfeeling and bigoted legal inspectors.  While many of our ancestors' names did change upon their arrival in America, it was, in fact, they, themselves, who changed their names.


Ships' passenger lists, which we will discuss in more detail in a later blog post, were created at the voyage's origin point -- say, a large European port city -- and then were checked off by the aforementioned inspectors upon debarkation.  They had no interest in Americanizing the names of any of the immigrants; hell, given the number of people they had to move through the process every day, they didn't have time to come up with more Anglo-sounding versions of these names.  These inspectors were not dramatically different than the kids who work the lines for a ride at Disneyland, checking to make sure that your son fits the minimum height requirement; you're lucky if they're conscious and sober.  They simply did their job, which was to make sure that the same person was getting off the ship who had gotten on the ship in the first place.  That's it.  There has not been a single verifiable case of a surname being forcibly changed at Ellis Island.




The legal inspectors at Ellis Island were the historical equivalent of DMV employees: overworked, underpaid, and in no mood to engage in creative writing exercises on the job.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.


Now, what happened once the immigrants hit the streets was entirely up to them.  I like to explain it this way: let's say that you're an 18 year old boy from Eastern Europe named Stanislaus.  You've just arrived in America all by yourself.  There's no one to hold you accountable, you know that a lot of Americans aren't too fond of foreigners, and you're eager to build a new life and to fit in.  You meet an American on the street and he asks you what your name is.  Now what are you going to say? And be honest.  Are you really going to say, "My name is Stanislaus," or are you going to say, "Hi, my name is Steve! I'm just enjoying a sausage-dog covered in America sauce."


If you didn't admit that you would have said, "Steve," then you're either very brave and extremely principled... or you're a dirty liar.  Only you know which one you are. 






In Part 2, we are going to examine the second question, namely, are you related to everyone else who has your same last name? As you might imagine, the question is not nearly as simple as at first it seems. Until then, enjoy a sausage-dog with America sauce!




1 Which I will.


2 List taken from Ancestry.com Message Boards for the surname Ferguson.

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