England Given Name Considerations (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Gender Non-specific Names[edit | edit source]

Names seen as strongly masculine or very feminine have had their adherents and still do, and some parents prefer the unisex names for their children. The stock of names considered appropriate for boys, or girls, has changed over time and the family historian should never make an assumption about the sex of a child.

  • Names used for boys that are now only female ones include Anne, Anthonia, Beryl, Harriott, Joan, Lucy, Marie, Shirley, Wendy
  • For females I have seen Basil, Charles, Christian (especially in Scottish families), Dennis, Dominic, Ebenezer, Hercules, Isaac, Jude, Julian, Matthew (often alias Martha),Philip, Richard, Silvester, Theophilus, Thomas, Timothy, Valentine, and William
  • Unisex names includeBev(erley), Billie, Carol, Chris, Evelyn, Hilary, Kim(berley), Lee, Lynn, Robin, Shirley, Pat, Tony, andTrac(e)y
  • One cannot always depend on the slight spelling variations) to distinguish males from females either. The general conventions are:
  • Cecil (male)/Cecile (female)
  • Florance (male)/Florence (female)
  • Francis(usually male)/Frances (usually female)
  • Horatio (male)/Horatia (female)
  • Jesse(usually male)/Jessie (usually female)
  • Lesley (both sexes)/Leslie (usually female)
  • Louis (male)/Louie (female)
  • Marion (both)/Marian (female)
  • Olave (male)/Olive (female)
  • René (male)/Renée (female)
  • Sidney/ Sydney (both either sex)

Usage can be quite complex, for example Julian was previously used for both boys and girls but it is now solely male, whilst Juliana and Gillian have been split off for females, and Julia and Julie, which are from different sources, have competed with them for popularity.

Middle Names[edit | edit source]

During the 19th century the fashion of bestowing middle names became more widespread. Parents now had a method of perpetuating more family names, particularly out-of-fashion ones unusable first names. Middle names were chosen for a reason, not just on a whim, and this is important to bear in mind when elucidating relationships. Family and friends were the usual sources, but royalty, heroes and other popular figures also feature in the available set. Many middle names were derived from surnames for a variety of reasons:

  • Ÿ Illegitimacy, In working class families pre-1900 the use of a surname as a second given name almost always indicates illegitimacy. It was a convenient way to indicate the child’s parentage by giving the father’s surname as a middle name to a child who would bear its mother’s surname. If it was a son the father’s given name may also be used as in:
7 Dec 1728 Holy Trinity, Exeter, Devon
Sampson Heale HAMMETT s. of Elizth [HAMMETT] and of Sampson HEALE, the reputed Father.

1823 Beer and Seaton, Devon
William John Fley NEWTON base s. of Mary [of] Beer, Lace Maker. Mary NEWTON was afterwards married to the reputed Father, John FLEY.

The reputed father’s name is not always stated, but the child’s middle name is most helpful when attempting to trace fathers of illegitimate children.

  • ŸPerpetuation of the mother’s maiden surname, particularly if from a notable family, and also in Scotland. For example my mother was Grace Dashwood Thom, her father being Dashwood John Thom, and his mother Caroline Mary Dashwood, who was from a poorer branch of a well-known English family. If you find a surname used as a middle name for a child, but it is not the mother’s surname when she married the father, it can often point to the fact that she was a widow at this marriage. Prior to 1837 this is not always stated on the marriage entry, so it is worth digging deeper into banns and licences, and searching the area for a suitable previous marriage then ‘killing off’ the first husband. Again, if no marriage has been found for your couple, it could mean that the wife was separated from her first husband and living common law in this new relationship, and the child’s middle name could well be her maiden surname.
  • ŸPerpetuation of another family name in danger of dying out, not always an ancestral maiden name. An example would be the married name of a childless sister of your ancestor, this couple perhaps leaving legacies to your main line.
  • ŸRecognition (or hopeful anticipation!) of favours from a local dignitary or employer.
  • ŸGodparent’s surname.
  • ŸCurrent hero’s name.
  • ŸSometimes the use of a surname is not obvious if it is a patronymically derived one such as James, Thomas or Alexander.

Mistaken Names[edit | edit source]

How many vicars misheard the child’s name and baptized him or her with a wrong one which was, of course, the one recorded. Parents didn’t dare to ask to check even if they were literate.

Somewhere in Surrey
The old vicar was confronted with a large number of baptisms, so the mother wrote the child’s name on a piece of paper and pinned it to the child’s clothing. When the vicar came to ask the mother the name she pointed at the child and said to him, “It’s pinned on her.” The old chap was a bit hard of hearing and he proceeded to name the child ISPINONER.

What about father forgetting, perhaps under influence of a celebratory drink or three, the child’s name chosen by mother and/or willfully registering under a different one? Believe me, these have happened on numerous occasions. The mistake may have been noticed if recourse to the register was needed many years later, hence the need for the many handwritten, and even printed fill-in-the-blanks-type, affidavits found in registers correcting given names.

Foundlings[edit | edit source]

These present unique problems for the researcher, who is likely to just throw up her hands in despair. In some cases parentage can be ascertained through a diligent search of parish chest materials or local workhouse or foundling hospital records. Most would have been given a name at the establishment which took them in, but they were sometimes reclaimed by their parents later on, and some reverted to their original surname, but perhaps kept their given name. A fascinating article on these kinds of records was written by Camp (Reclaimed Foundlings. Family Tree Magazine Vol 16 #8, pages 19-20, 2000).

Change of Given Name[edit | edit source]

Every family has examples of people christened or registered under a certain name(s) but always being known by another. Early in my research I was amazed to find that my great aunt Dolly was really Alice Elsie, and that her brother, who everyone referred to as Fred, was actually Albert William. Some of these come about because of a genuine dislike by that person of the name they were given, whilst others have arisen from nicknames or other reasons. Servants in some households acquired the standard given name for their position with that family, for example if they were hired as a parlour maid then they were Sarah, the scullery maid was always Mary, and the coachman James.

Non-Names[edit | edit source]

A variety of non-names are encountered in old parish records ranging from the genuinely unknown man who dropped down dead to the child of a traveller or vagrant. There are also those odd gaps in indexes and transcripts which can be better understood by checking the originals where there is a disintegrated page or an ink blot just where the name had been written. Detailed corroboration with other records such as burials and censuses, family reconstruction, and cross-referencing parish registers with civil registration records, including the Unknown section after the Z’s in the index can often identify the mystery person. For help with this see Judith Habgood-Everitt’s article It’s “Unknown” to Most of Us! Family Tree Magazine Vol 14 #12, page 25..

A puzzling entry is the given name Creature seen in very early records, sometimes seen as the Latin Creatura Christi. It was a baptismal name for a weakly new-born baby whose sex could not be determined or who was unlikely to survive to need a carefully chosen name. An example follows:

Staplehurst, Kent 1547
Ther was baptized by the midwyffe, and so buryed the childe of Thomas Goldham, called Creature.

A chrisom child, chrisomer or innocent, likewise may not have received a given name. This was the term given to a baby who died before its mother had been churched (purified after the birth). These children are quite frequently found in burial registers of the 16th and 17th centuries, and may or may not have already been baptized.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.