First Names are Clues to Origin

NameThe following Roots to the Past column appeared January 2012.

Before I stuck my nose into genealogy, I had only an inkling of where my four family lines originated. The Taylor name on my mother’s maternal side was a no brainer. They had originated in England and were very British. However, my mother’s paternal side was shrouded in mystery. It was believed the first Appleby settler had originated somewhere in what is now called the United Kingdom or Ireland. Or maybe neither.

A story my mother told repeatedly was her father believed the first Appleby who settled in Newfoundland in the early 1800s was from a country he was forced to leave. Apparently, he was a wealthy man who because of political or religious pressure fled, leaving his money behind. Men in his homeland had supposedly tried to persuade him to return so he could collect his fortune, but he refused, knowing if he did so he’d be killed or imprisoned. My brother suggested that Prussia could have been his country of origin because of this story.

My father’s side was equally mysterious. His paternal side claimed to be Dutch. Later I learnt this was a cover-up many families used for their German ancestry along the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Until I delved into genealogy, my family repeated what we had been mistakenly told: we were Dutch.NamePic

My father’s maternal side was supposedly native and certainly many individuals had facial features that indicated this was so. However, this was denied by aunts and uncles. They claimed to not know their mother’s ethnical origin, but according to them, it definitely wasn’t native.

With my sparse knowledge of family history and genealogy, I tried to sort myth and lie from fact. If an expert had examined the first names of my siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents they’d have been able to make an educated guess to ethnic origin without mentioning a surname.

One family line contained names such as Johannes, Lorenz and Elisabeth. Though further research is needed to prove the obvious, this family was German.

Another family line contained Melvin, Bruce, Roy and Scott. A quick origin search of these names points directly to Scotland.

Searching by first name can at times uncover a maternal origin when a maiden name can’t be found. For example, if a great-grandmother who married José Armando named her four children Lauchlan, Alistair, Elspeth and Ewen she most likely was Scottish.

Many older, more common names have been used by several ethnic groups. The old spelling provides clues to help sort them. For example, Elizabeth has been used for centuries by the Irish (Eilish), Polish (Izabella), Icelandic (Elísabet), Spanish (Ysabel), Russian (Elizabeta), Hawaiian (Elikapeka) and many others.

You can do your own first name origin search using Behind the Name. The further back in history the name is used in a family, the more accurate the findings. Children born after 1950 are less likely to bear a name from a family’s country of origin.


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One thought on “First Names are Clues to Origin

  1. Such a fascinating journey, Diane! I was interested by your German roots in Nova Scotia, having visited stunning Lunenberg a few months ago. A wonderful family tapestry!

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