Recording maiden names in genealogy

The so-called “genealogy standard” is to use birth names for everyone, even in cultures where it doesn’t make sense.

The “encylopedic standard” makes more sense. As a mental shorthand, I think of it as “best known as”. For example:

Cokayne [formerly Adams], George Edward (1825–1911), genealogist, born at 64 Russell Square, London, on 29 April 1825, was the fourth son and youngest child (in a family of eight) of William Adams (1772–1851), LLD, of Thorpe, Surrey, advocate in Doctors’ Commons, and his wife, the Hon. Mary Anne (d. 1873), daughter of William Cockayne and niece and coheir of Borlase Cockayne, sixth and last Viscount Cullen. Dictionary of National Biography


William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton (b. William Jefferson Blythe III on August 19, 1946, in Hope, AR) was the 42nd president of the United States. He served from 1993 to 2001.

We could go on and on.

Maiden names and aliases

“In England, as well as in France and other continental nations, down to the seventeenth century, married women and widows not infrequently retained their maiden names, generally, however, with an alias ; and in certain parts of Scotland and Wales, such persons still sign by their maiden name in legal documents, even though described in them by the surnames of their lords. In Scottish deeds, they are almost always described by both the maiden and the marital surname ; a course which ought invariably to be followed, as suggested by Mr. Hubback, where they do not conform to the practice adopted in England of signing by the husband’s name.

George Seton, The Law and Practice of Heraldry in Scotland (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1863), 392-93 (citing Evidence of Succession, 455).

Can People Have Names?

Yesterday’s post about names as performance got me to thinking. Somewhere on the periphery of memory I seemed to recall a paper about a medieval debate whether people can have names. And, sure enough, I found it:

As a medievalist I’m fascinated by the details, but as a genealogist it’s enough to know that such a debate could and did occur. Probably no one in casual conversation would believe it.

So, let’s have just a taste. From the overview: “First, how was it theoretically possible to doubt the nameability of individuals? To answer this question, I look at the medieval traditions in the language arts. Specifically, I argue that Boethius’s commentaries on Aristotle’s Perihermeneias provide criteria for what counts as a nomen or “name” in a philosophical sense, but those criteria specifically exclude words that might otherwise be regarded as nomina or “nouns” in a grammatical sense. Granting this distinction, I then ask the second question of the thesis: On what reasonable grounds might a philosopher think that a name of an individual is merely a grammatical “noun” rather than a genuine philosophical “name”? Here the answer seems to be that individuals cannot be named as such because they cannot be understood as such. I investigate two broad motivations in the arguments: (a) human cognitive faculties are not equipped to grasp the individual as such, and (b) individuals are unknowable in themselves because they are composites of matter (which is unknowable) and form (which may be knowable, but which may also be common to many individuals).

In other words, it’s medieval European philosophers learning to digest Aristotle after re-discovering him in the 12th and 13th centuries. (Thank you, Muslims). Same old, same old.

I think those of us with personal names are safe enough. Our heritage doesn’t require us to give them up.

Name Performance

Are names performative? That’s a new idea for me. I came across it while reading a book by Abu El-Haj about the politics of Israeli archeology:

The author “specifies for the first time the relationship between national ideology, colonial settlement, and the production of historical knowledge. She analyzes particular instances of history, artifacts, and landscapes in the making to show how archaeology helped not only to legitimize cultural and political visions but, far more powerfully, to reshape them” (says Goodreads). Good stuff.

In a discussion about naming pottery types, Abu El-Haj points out that naming a type can be a way of creating evidence from a neutral fact. “In other words, the name of objects was integral to producing an independent evidentiary basis upon which an empirical tradition of archaeological practice would henceforth build” (119). A somewhat difficult idea but easy to understand once it’s grasped. For example, naming the type “Israelite” rather than “collared rim” is a conclusion from the evidence and facilitates the argument that this type is proof of Israelite occupation (118-19). It becomes more difficult to argue that finding the pottery type called Israelite is not evidence this is an Israelite site.

In making this argument, Abu El-Haj cites Jacqueline Stevens for the idea names are performative. And here’s where my attention is really captured.

As Jacqueline Stevens has argued quite eloquently with regard to personal names and national affiliations, they are not merely ‘contingent label’ detachable from some already constituted personhood. Rather, ‘the personal name is also the person’ (1999:154); such names perform nationality (158). Extending that argument to question of scientific facts and the naming of things, the name Israelite performs in the very ontology of material-cultural things. Thus, the repeated invocation if Israelite pottery as evidence for Israelite presence in debates concerning questions of chronology and character continuously enacts the nation itself as historical fact. The nation’s historical reality, after all, is evidence in the pottery form itself–a form that exists as a specific ethnic class of objects only when named.

Now I want to read the Stevens book as well. Goodreads’ summary says, “People are said to acquire their affiliations of ethnicity, race, and sex at birth. Hence, these affiliations have long been understood to be natural, independent of the ability of political societies to define who we are. Reproducing the State vigorously challenges the conventional view.” (Goodreads).

Adding it to my list.

Naming Conventions

One of the canards of genealogy is that professional genealogists always prefer the earliest recorded name. The idea is that name is the most authentic.

More or less true, but not quite, not always.

William Shakespeare, for example. You think you know his name? His baptismal record, the earliest in a scant collection, calls him Gulielmus — Latin for William.

Wait! Do I have to change my database so that my tenuous connection to England’s most famous playwright shows him as Gulielmus Shakespeare?

No, what’s happening here is a very basic confusion. Prosopographers already know there is a difference between having a database identifier, which can be a name, and recording all the name variations a person used in their lifetime.

In short, genealogists haven’t kept up with best academic practices. Many are still mired in the amateur practices of the 18th and 19th centuries. Time to catch up.

Lost Alphabet Letters

In the modern Western world we use the Roman alphabet with 26 letters. Usually. The Swedes actually have 29 letters. What’s surprising to some folks is that we might have had more letters ourselves. Who thinks about what might have been? Except when you see an extract from an olde manuscript and spot a letter or two you’ve seen before but don’t know to pronounce.

Here’s a list of the lost letters. I particularly grieve losing eth and thorn

You know the alphabet. It’s one of the first things you’re taught in school. But did you know that they’re not teaching you all of the alphabet? There are quite a few letters we tossed aside as our language grew, and you probably never even knew they existed.

Funny side story here. My grandfather, just to be a bit ornery sometimes, kept up the idea that Swanstrom is spelled Swanström. (“Fine. As Americans we’ll change the v to a w but we’re keeping the ö.“) Didn’t bother him a bit when people laughed uncertainly but didn’t change it. After all, how could anyone change it when there is no key for it on American typewriters? The point, I think, was not to insist on it but to say it just often enough so that everyone knows you haven’t abandoned your rights.

When I got to college, I took Swedish 101. One of the first things we learned was that the Swedish alphabet has three extra letters — å, ä, and ö. They are really, truly separate letters, not just ordinary letters tarted up the way Germans do. That ö is an /øː/ not an “o with two dots” or an “o umlaut“.

I promptly swapped out the o in Swanstrom for an ö, joining my mother and grandfather in the family tradition of fancy spelling.

Now here’s the point of this little story. I have many friends who do numerology. I dabble in it myself. Modern numerology–and it is very modern, no earlier than the 1920s, I don’t think–operates by reducing each letter of the alphabet to a numeric value, then adds the numeric value of all the letters in a word or name to come up with a number. And that number has a meaning.

As a quick example, let’s do cat. C (3rd letter)=3, A (1st letter)=1, T (20th letter, 2+0)=2. So cat would be 3+1+20=24, and 2+4=6. Then, the number 6 has a particular meaning in numerology. “The number 6 is the number of domestic happiness, harmony and stability“. That’s one interpretation, anyway.

So, if the Swedes have extra letters then ö is the 29th letter, different from o the 15th letter. Swanstrom spelled Swanström will end up with a different number. My numerology chums are dubious. They’re uncomfortable. They won’t come out and say it, but they seem to be operating in a world where the American way is the right way and everyone else is wrong or misguided. I’m not getting a coherent analysis from any of them. The best argument I’ve heard so far is that I’m an American, so I can’t have Swedish letters in my name. “Those two dots over the o are just decorative.

But, luck of the draw. The ö is the 29th letter of the Swedish alphabet, so 2+9=11. In the reductionist methodology of numerology, this means is that changing my o to an ö, doesn’t change the final outcome.

Why and how that works is one of the mysteries of math. I didn’t get far enough to understand it, but it does give me a reason to think about those other letters and how they might change the numerology of a name, and those 12 letters we’ve lost and what impact they might have had on modern numerology. If only we knew the order in which they would have appeared in our alphabet.


How would it be if we all had double surnames, one from our paternal line and one from our maternal line. Sort of like the Spanish do, but modified slightly so the maternal surname really is a surname that passes along the maternal line and not just the mother’s paternal surname.

That’s the idea thrown out by Burgerkrieg.

I tried it for about six weeks. I thought it might mitigate the perpetual confusion about my name change from Howery to Swanström. I don’t know whether it helped or not. Mostly it just drove me crazy because I’m a minimalist at heart. In my world even middle initials seem pretentious, an affectation of the petit bourgeoisie.

I do like, though, a particular “system” I see among some of my European cousins, where the last name comes from one parent and the middle name from the other. No long strings of given names there, so nicely minimalist.

More Information

Women’s Names among the Scots and Irish

Genealogists tend to make a hash of women’s names because they don’t know, or don’t acknowledge, the cultural rules that would have applied at a particular time and place. The names of pre-Modern women in Scotland and Ireland is a particularly difficult area.

So often people tell me they just want a rule of thumb. My response is that it would be much better to use the names they’re found in primary sources.

Admittedly, that begs the question of how to understand and interpret the names we find. I’m watching for a good, introductory level discussion. In the meantime, I’ve come across this short piece by Barry McCain.

A married woman would take her husband’s surname, but the prefix form was different than the male form. Ó became Uí and Mac became Mhic. This name change did not always hide the surname of the woman’s father however. In traditional Gaelic society some women retained their father’s surname due to the strong sense of family and clan affiliation. This was done when the woman was the daughter of a land holding family and had high status within society.

Two examples from the mid to late 1500s that I located in my own research are: Fionnuala Nic Eáin married Dónaill Mac Ailín. Her “married name” becomes Fionnuala Mhic Ailín. In actuality, she retained her maiden name in the community and is listed by that name in the records. Her name appears crudely anglicised as Finvall Nikean.

If that sounds like the kind of thing you need to know, I encourage you to read the entire article.