Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Friday, February 11, 2011

Naming Conventions: Finding John and Mary

This article was first published on October 31, 2008 and has been modified for posting here today.

Over the past fifty years, we have seen a drastic change in the names parents are giving to their children. It is not uncommon for a new baby to be named for a place, a season, a plant or a flower, or even an inaminate object. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned names like John and Mary?  After the Norman Conquest of 1066, a few individuals passed on heritary surnames, but most of the population seemed to exist quite well without the use of more than one name. In early England, one's surname may have been the same as the location in which he lived. In later years, a man's surname may have been the same as the occupation in which he was engaged. As the number of people in the known world at the time grew, naming conventions changed from one name to two, and first or "given" names were repetitious in families throughout many generations. Most genealogists will tell you that tracing one's family tree is often complicated because of the repetitious nature of given names handed down for several generations, making it almost impossible in some situations to tell one family member from another. Even more complicating is the fact that siblings often named their children the same names. Below you will see how the naming system worked until its demise in the United States sometime during the late 1800's. 


First Son: Named for his paternal grandfather 
Second son: Named for his maternal grandfather 
Third son: Named for his father's paternal grandfather 
Fourth son: Named for his mother's paternal grandfather 
Fifth son: Named for his father's maternal grandfather 
Sixth son: Named for his mother's maternal grandfather 


First Daughter: Named for maternal grandmother 
Second daughter: Named for paternal grandmother 
Third daughter: Named for mother's maternal grandmother 
Fourth daughter: Named for father's maternal grandmother 
Fifth daughter: Named for mother's paternal grandmother 
Sixth daughter: Named for father's paternal grandmother 

As strange as the custom may seem today, it was a common practice to name the next daughter born within a second marriage for the father's deceased wife.  If a mother died in childbirth, the child, if it was a girl, was usually named for the mother. If a family lost a young child to illness or disease,  it was not uncommon for the next child born to be named for the one who had died prematurely. It doesn't matter the century or the place, our names will remain as they have throughout history to be of the utmost importance in our daily lives, making us unique individuals.  As I reflect on the fact that none of us actually get to choose our birth names, I ask this question:  
What would you have named yourself if you had been given the choice? 


  1. My name Linda was a common name for baby boomers. In school, there was usually more than two of us with the name and where baby boomers congregate there is usually more than one. If my parents had followed the naming pattern, I would be Alice, a name shared with my maternal grandmother, an aunt, ggrandmother, and gggrandmother. I think I'll keep Linda.

  2. As a child I always wanted a different name. Being raised Catholic and having gone 12 years to Catholic school it seemed all the girls were named Mary...I always wanted something more 'exotic'. Now I wouldn't change it for anything. The sad part is that Mary is now slowly disappearing as name. You seldom hear of a new baby being named Mary.