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Importance to Genealogy

In genealogy we usually concentrate on surnames since they are the most important way of identifying people who are related. A surname is usually inherited and, while it may be changed, some form of it is usually retained. Given names are more important in a way because they represent a voluntary choice by the parents or, sometimes, by an individual. A name is usually not given lightly. It represents thought and feelings and can be significant to the researcher.

In general, the development of surnames and their universal use throughout the world followed commerce. The countries and parts of countries where many were engaged in trade were the first to use surnames. Agricultural districts, where man was tied to the soil to make his living, had a smaller population where the need for more exact identification was not as necessary, thus were, the last places to acquire universal family names.

History of Changing Names

Names comprise the surnames found in every country throughout the world, many with differences in spelling not seen in the old country due to the inability of clerks and government officials to record correctly the names given them by unschooled immigrants not familiar with the English, French, German, or Spanish languages currently used in the port of entry or the part of the country where they settled. When an immigrant arrived with little knowledge of the native language gave his name verbally to the officials to whom it sounded odd or unusual, it was written down by them as they heard it, and being thereby "official," it was often accepted by the immigrant himself as a correct rendering of his name.

But it is not enough to declare that surnames of a specific country now embody all the surnames of all the world. Immigrants from European countries have also consciously altered their names to relate them partially to the native language, especially as to English pronunciation, so that many names have a form and spelling, as have been mentioned, which is different from that found anywhere else.

For example: Dutch VAN ROSEVELT "of the rose field" becomes ROOSEVELT

Why Change Name?


The vast majority of immigrants immigrate to get jobs. The supply resulted in being much higher than the demand. This made the huge pool of workers, usually unskilled, desperate to find work. Employers were not forced to abide by anti-discriminatory laws and were not given sensitivity training. Employers often found foreign names difficult to pronounce and preferred workers who were somewhat native. In attempt to make job finding more successful, if an immigrant had family or friends who arrived earlier they may have advised the new arrival to take an easier, more native name. Also, a boss who found the foreign name too difficult to pronounce may have suggested a simpler name. If the new employee didn't object he may have just decided to use the new name for everything. Furthermore, since wages were usually paid in cash, he didn't have to worry about a name on a check being the same as the bank account. Although a new arrival might quickly choose a simpler name in order to get a job, he might later have second thoughts and choose an alternate one. For example, he might have selected one name originally because it was the first native name that came to mind. However, after being in the new country for a while he might learn that his foreign name actually had an equivalent native name and decide it would be more accurate to use that name.

Fitting In

Becoming part of the native culture is another reason why your ancestors might have changed their names. Even though some immigrants came with the idea of working for a while and returning home, most came to stay forever. Many wanted to become native as fast as possible so they changed their style of clothes and adopted a more native name. The immigrants who came as children were especially eager to assimilate due to peer pressure.. With their friends at school urging them to modernize their names, they may not have wanted to be associated with an unpopular sounding name.


Consider that even if an immigrant wasn't pressured into making a change, a foreign name can be annoying when you have to spell it for everyone.

How Would Immigrants Change Their Name?

Types of Changes

In the United States around 1900, there were no rules about names so immigrants could alter their names, first or last, any way they wanted. For example,

  • One of the easiest changes was to simplify the pronunciation and spelling. So, the German "Nüchter" could get rid of the un-American umlaut and change the sound to one more familiar to English speaking people, ending up with "Nichter."
  • A name with too many syllables might be shortened.
  • Combinations of letters not usually used in America — especially those with lots of z's — could be modified so the sound was similar.
  • A completely different, English name might be adopted.
  • A person with a long name such as "Finkelstein" might shorten it to "Finkel" or "Stein."
  • People might pick a given name that is very American and sounds somewhat like their original name. For example, the Japanese "Tamio" could become "Tommy."

Why That Name?

Names as a Virtue

Some of the most interesting names come from early New England where parents often named their children after virtues they hoped to possess: Patience, Charity, Prudence, Thankful. Other names had special meaning. In early New England it is believed that the name Benoni was associated with sorrow or sadness and was used when the mother was not married or died in childbirth or if the circumstances were in some way unfortunate.

Recycled Names

Up until this century, parents could usually count on roughly one third of their children not surviving. If a child died, the name was often used again. If a baby died, the next child of the same sex would often be given the same name. When you check birth records, you should never stop when you find the name you are looking for. You should continue for a few more years, because the first child could have died and your ancestor could have been the second child in the family with that name.


You may think you have a relationship all figured out only to come upon a completely different name for the wife. Nicknames that were common in earlier times, especially for girls, may not be known nicknames at all today. What frequently happens with men is they decide to go by their middle name. Everyone will know them by the middle name and they will be written up in county histories under this name. John William may be called Bill most of the time. But when it comes to some official documents, his full legal name may be used. Your best piece of luck is when you encounter a document where he uses both names together.

Add Your Nickname Now

Baptismal Names

In Catholic churches especially, but also found in other churches, the Latin name will be used at the time of baptism. Most genealogists maintain that a person should be entered in the database under his baptismal name.

Sounds Like

Some foreign languages do not have equivalent names so a direct translation is not possible. Asian names usually cannot be translated directly, but may be too awkward to use when dealing with Americans on a casual basis. In this case a similar sounding American name may be adopted. Patronymics Given names become even more significant in the patronymic system, as in Scandinavia, where the given name of the father becomes the surname of the son. If Eric Larson has a son, he will be John Ericson and his son will be Sven Johnson.

Name Deriving Facts

Patronymics - From the Father's Name or other Relationships

Occupational Names - From Occupation or Office

Nicknames - From Description of Action

Place Names - From Village Names or Landscape Features

Patronymics 32.23% of names

Occupational Names 15.16% of names

Nicknames 9.48% of names

Place Names 43.13% of names


While given names do not have the importance of surnames, they should still be carefully studied because they can give valuable hints about your family history.

Learning more about the origins of surnames can be interesting, and also practical. Now that you know something about the surnames of different nationalities and how they may have changed over the years, you may be better-equipped to locate some of your family records. If you can't find older family records under the current spellings of your family surnames, think about the likely ways in which those names may have changed, and then look for records under those spellings. You may be pleasantly surprised.

View the Surnames in Your Tree Now

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