Wednesday, March 12, 2014

More to Learn About Names

What rhymes with Melnitchenko?

And more importantly, where do names like “–enko” come from?

With names swirling around in my head, I couldn’t be sure about dismissing any that I had recently found online, in my search for my godmother’s Melnitchenko family. I had made headway in discovering my godmother’s mother’s name (Lydia) and at least the first initial of her father’s name (“M,” which I strongly suspect should represent “Michael”). However, I had also uncovered the fact that not only was the name I knew her by (Genia) a nickname for the more formal Eugenie, but it represented her middle name, not her first name.

Her first name, as we saw yesterday, was Olga.

Upon finding that out, I had to go back to several files I had previously dismissed out of hand. One—with the names Olga, Eugenia and Michael in an index of Declarations of Intent filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York—I had presumed, earlier, to be the smoking gun revealing Genia’s mother’s name. (After all, I was already pretty sure her father was Michael, so that must mean her mother’s name was Olga—right?)

When I found the passenger list that showed me Genia’s mother was Lydia, I decided to trash the lead from the naturalization index—until I found that border crossing file yesterday, showing Olga and Genia to be one and the same person.

Now, I want to revisit all those index files I had found, both at for Genia and for Lydia, and at for Michael.

But before I do, I need to take you on a detour through some naming traditions in a culture I’ve never researched before: that of eastern Europe and Russia.

This detour was originally inspired, thanks to a comment posted by a reader a few days ago. Sharing a link to a book written by a man surnamed, coincidentally, Melnitchenko, Intense Guy had gotten me thinking about the origins of surnames. In particular, I began musing about where the suffix “–enko” might have come from. Could it be—like the book title Iggy had just sent me—a surname having its origin in the Ukraine?

I Googled that very question. The result was a short education in not only the origin of surnames rhyming with Melnitchenko, but of the use of patronymic naming patterns in eastern Slavic ethnic groups.

I had learned about patronyms before, mainly from research focusing on those of Scandinavian heritage—not that I have any Swedish or Norwegian ancestors, myself, just that I learn a lot from fellow genealogical researchers. But I had never known anything about the use of patronymic naming systems for those of Russian or Slavic heritage, either.

Reading the material I had just found—right after the section that confirmed that Melnitchenko was a Ukrainian surname—I learned that a person’s patronymic name was obtained from the father’s first name (nothing surprising there) and inserted in the middle of the child’s name, between the given name and the surname.

The only caveat was: the father’s name, itself, wasn’t inserted in the child’s name. A form of the name was entered. That form included a suffix indicating “son of” or “daughter of” the father. So, for instance, in Russian, the suffix “–ovich” would be added to the father’s name. Likewise, the Ukrainian counterpart would end in “–ovych.”

Now, take that little thought and wrap it around the all-too-common experience of immigrant meeting English-speaking government bureaucrat. The fine details of “–ovich” for Russian and “–ovych” for Ukrainian likely became lost upon those Anglo-Saxon attuned ears.

Could the result ever become "–ivitch"?

Now for the last stop on my detour: revisiting yet another previously discarded find in my search for the Melnitchenko family. This time, we have to rewind the clock to 1924, and check back with the passenger list I had found—and then discarded—for the crew of the S.S. Hirondelle, sailing from Marseilles to New York.

Could the "Ivanivitch" in sailor Melnitchenko’s name actually be a patronymic name? Could this twenty seven year old Russian sailor be the same as seaman Michael I. Melnitchenko I had found in later years here, and here?

When I then go back to those index cards I re-collected from my discarded finds in the index to New York naturalization records, I now think I know what the entry was really saying for immigration applicant Michael Ivan Melnitchenko.

“Ivan” wasn’t his middle name. “Ivan” was an Americanized way of signifying who Michael’s father  was.

And, having learned that simple naming lesson, we now can push back another generation…  

 Above: "Fair in the Ukraine" painting by Basil Sternberg (1818-1845); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Looking back across time - you can see how people "struggled" to invent a system of naming themselves in a way that would uniquely identify someone. The "son of so-and-so" approach didn't work so well... just look at all the Johnson's... and I even know a couple Ivanson's..

    1. Actually, Iggy, now that I've learned about it, the Russian patronymic naming system makes a lot of sense to me. It provides two ways to link a child back to a father--avoiding the difficulties inherent in the Norwegian and Swedish patronymic traditions, and also giving a way to differentiate between two cousins named after the same grandfather. Just think what that could have done for me, researching those Irish lines with all those John Kellys!

  2. My mother once told me, and I don't know if this is true, that the Jewish custom is to name a baby with the first initial of a loved one who recently died. My father, Gordon, was apparently named after his paternal grandmother, Goldie, who passed away a few years before he was born. And his brother, Robert, was named after his maternal grandmother, Rebecca, who died a few years before his birth. I need to determine if that was an accurate statement - it sure seems to be based on these two brothers.

    1. Debi, that is an interesting piece of information, if it is indeed true. It certainly seems plausible, given the examples you cited.

      I wonder if it is a custom from Jewish heritage worldwide, or a tradition handed down from a specific geographic region.

      If you do find anything further on this, Debi, please do stop by again and update this thread. I'm sure others would want to know, too.

    2. Well look what I just found on the Judaism 101 website

      Among Ashkenazic Jews (Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe), it is customary to name children after a recently deceased relative. This is a way of honoring the dead and of keeping the dead person's memory alive. The name given to the child is not always identical to that of the deceased; it is often changed to reflect the popular names of the time, but usually retains the sound or at least the first initial.

    3. Fascinating, Debi! Thanks for coming back and posting that follow-up, along with the link. This is helpful to know!

  3. It's funny you are discussing surname origins because I've been reading up on that as well. In fact, I started to make a comment the other day about feminine and masculine suffixes but it didn't seem to apply at the time.

    1. As far as timing goes, Wendy, it sounds like we are almost on the same wavelength! Comment away, my friend! Any bit of information helps. I'm seeing a steep learning curve ahead for me--hadn't bargained on it when I started this journey, but it certainly will be worth it when this is all wrapped up.

      ...who am I kidding here?! Genealogy work is never "all wrapped up".....

  4. Interesting..I think you have some great clues to work with now:)

    1. Oh, yeah...discovering this concept has opened up doors for me. It's dawning on me what a useful little device this patronymic tradition is.


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