Family Tree Baby Names – Think Substance, Not Style

If you were given a list of baby names and told to choose one, you’d probably make your selection based on style. Makes sense, right? Without any other information, that’s about all you could do.

This is what makes plucking a baby name off the family tree tricky. Many of the names on our trees don’t correspond to individuals we personally know (or knew). And the handful of dates and locations listed below those names don’t offer much in the way of context. It’s just a chart full of names. What’s to prevent someone from choosing one of those names based solely on style? Nothing, really.

That’s why, when it comes to family names, I think it’s important to dig a little deeper before making a decision.

First, it’ll keep you from making a mistake. Good names don’t always belong to good people. For instance, let’s say you like the family names Otis and Grace. But the family tree doesn’t mention that Great-great-uncle Otis was a raging alcoholic. Or that your husband’s Great-grandmother Grace was an ardent Nazi sympathizer. Wouldn’t it be nice to know little details like these ahead of time?

Second, it’ll keep you from overlooking someone important. A very cool person may be hiding behind a name that doesn’t strike you as being particularly special. Perhaps among your baby’s ancestors are adventurers, soldiers, suffragettes…who knows. Here’s a real-life example of what I’m talking about from Asra Q. Nomani’s essay “The Scarlet Letter Z”:

I named my son Shibli, meaning “my lion cub” in Arabic, evoking the most famous ancestor in my paternal lineage, a late-nineteenth-century Islamic reformer and scholar by the name of Shibli Nomani.

Third, it’ll teach you something about your family. The search for a name gives you a great reason to delve into your family history. Why not view it as an opportunity?

So, let’s say you’re interested in digging deeper, but all you have is a family tree and limited spare time. Where are you going to get all the information you’re looking for? Here’s what I would try first:

  1. Older relatives. Invite them out to lunch one day and just ask them to talk. The easiest research you’ll ever do. :)
  2. Obituaries. These aren’t hard to track down, and they give you a decent snapshot of a person’s life.
  3. History books. I don’t mean textbooks–I mean small, regional history books and pamphlets that focus on the towns, villages, and other areas where your ancestors lived. Check the indices for familiar surnames.

What other ideas would you add to this list?


3 thoughts on “Family Tree Baby Names – Think Substance, Not Style

  1. Well, the past year or so I’ve done quite a bit. My historical society was a good place to start, and I live in a reasonably sized city and so the public library has a genealogy section. A distant relative had done her family tree, and it intersected mine, so that was helpful. And then I did join ancestry.com and found a bunch of connections. The problem there is discernment. Is this Edward Blake *my* Edward Blake? for instance…

  2. I’m an archivist, so…

    I’d agree that you should start with your own elderly family members, but also ask other people in the town where your family is or was – old friends of the family, long-time residents, etc. Sometimes non-family will give you the straight scoop on that alcoholic great-uncle when family won’t.

    Is there a town historian that you can talk to? What about the local historical society or history collection at the public library? See if there’s a genealogical group locally.

    You can also check things like the Census, which will give you occupations.

    Finally, once you get past the “great-greats”, no one will likely remember the antics of the person, so don’t worry too much about it.

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