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What’s in a name? That which we call…

September 12, 2018

rosebyanothernameOne thing I have struggled with while uncovering my family’s complicated past is the lack of consistency in naming conventions before the digital age.

In the Information Age, if you type in your name or ID with a single letter missing or out of place, your application gets rejected by whatever online program it is you’re trying to get access to. We all have numbers assigned to us—social security numbers, student numbers, worker numbers, case numbers, credit card numbers, you name it.

The past?

Thhppt. What’s a number? What’s a name? That which we would call a rose…

Nicknames abound

People use nicknames with the census takers. Helen becomes Ellen, Elle, or Emma. Beatrice becomes Betty, Bet, or Ebby. Middle names are used as first names. And then you get names first in Dutch, German, or French that a monolingual English census taker can’t figure out and so writes down what he thinks it sounds like.

Creative name taking. This process worked for both given and family names.

One ancestor, Thomas Bushell, who first came to Troy, New York, in around 1866 (a Famine Irish) is listed as Buschel, Boushel, Bushin, Bushell, and Bushel. His children are listed variously as Bushel, Bushell, Bushnel, Busnel, and Bussel. In fact, his son (William Joseph Bushell/Busnel/Bushnel/Bushnell) had his name changed several times over two decades before settling on Bushnell.

Emma Rescott (William’s wife) was French-Canadian-American; her French-Canadian father Horace Rescott was Morris, or Louis, or Lewis Rasicot, or Rustico, or Rassico, or Racico, or Riscot, or Rascott.

So what’s in a name?

As I’ve already said in a previous post, simply having a family name doesn’t necessarily mean the person is related to another with the same name. My family (“Bushnell”) is not related to Bushnells who made the first submarine (David Bushnell), Bushnell binoculars (David P. Bushnell, David’s descendant), or Atari (Nolan Bushnell, lapsed LDS Church member).

Likewise, first names are maddeningly simple in the past.

The Germans, the French, and the Irish

My German ancestors called all their sons Johannes or Jacob (the origin of the famous children’s song) and all their daughters Maria; my French ancestors called all their sons Jean, François, or Joseph and all their daughters Marie, and Irish called all their sons John, Thomas, and Joseph and all their daughters Susan and Mary (you can probably sense a religious pattern going on…). Search for “Susan O’Leary” and you’ll find literally thousands of women born at roughly the same time and place.

The Dutch

My Dutch ancestors are even more confusing. They didn’t bother with family names until Napoleon made them choose permanent family names after taking over their country in 1811. Before that, the Dutch simply used their father’s first name (a similar system was used throughout Northern Germanic and Celtic cultures for centuries).

So Jan’s son Willem would be Willem Janz and then William’s son Jan would be Jan Willemz. Trying figuring that out after a couple generations. After they came to the US, many adopted a kind of a surname, but the “van” or “de” doesn’t really help; van just means “from” and de just indicates a profession or characteristic. So everybody from a swampy area is called “van der poel” (Vanderpool) and everybody with blond hair is called “Dewitt” (Dutch wit means white, or blond. So “Wit blond ale” really means “blond blond ale.”)

The intercultural / interlingual reality

Still, while the names and dates can drive you crazy, they do show us how people from different language and cultural backgrounds interacted over time as their families “became” American. Misspellings tell us about pronunciation. Naming conventions tell us about customs and family heritage.

Family history gives a window into history. That’s a good reason to be interested in one’s own past. The past: it’s personal!

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