Sunday, February 9, 2014

What’s With That Middle Name, Anyhow?

Looking at the names Martha Cassandra Boothe Davis and her husband Will bestowed upon their daughters, you’ve got to wonder: where did they get those names, anyhow?

There was Lummie—just Lummie. It was not shortened from Columbia or any other name, but just plain Lummie—although thanks to reader Wendy of Jollett Etc., we now know where Lummie could have originated.

There was Chevis, kindly tempered by the addition of a traditional first name—Mary—but still an almost unheard-of choice.

And then, there was Mabel’s middle name.

When you learn what the official name was that was given to accompany that homely first name Mabel, you can certainly understand the woman’s choice, in later years, to just go with the flow and call herself Jean.

The first time I encountered Mabel’s middle name was when I got my initial glimpse of the Davis family Bible. I was relatively young at the time—barely out of college, if I remember correctly. I was in a rush to copy down all that valuable data tucked inside, before my moment with the treasured Bible could be called to an abrupt halt. I saw her middle name, thought, “What?!?!” but kept on writing as fast as I could. I already “knew” her middle name was Jean. This discovery threw me quite a curve.

Pulling out my scribbled notes when I got home, intending to transcribe them in my database right away, before anything happened—like losing the thing—I saw it again. There it was, the same, strange name I remembered copying, back in Columbus, Ohio, when I visited my grandparents: Eugenie.

So strange. “You-JEAN-ee?” I even tried giving it a gentle Tennessee twang, to see if that would soften the blow. It didn’t.

It was like someone taking a name, adding an “ie” as if making it a nickname, to make it “cute” enough for a girl’s name.

You can take almost any old-fashioned name and do that. Like changing John to Johnnie. Or Jack to Jackie. I’ve even heard Paul changed to Paulie. But that “ie” doesn’t generally make a boy’s name suddenly become a girl’s name—at least, not back in a time like 1888.

Eugene to Eugenie? How could Will and Cassie do that to the girl?

Fast forward a lot of years. Like two decades worth of years. I was now in the thick of being a dutiful homeschool mom. Our family had the privilege of living near a very talented, fascinating woman who also was a homeschooler. Because she was born and raised in France and was a native speaker of the French language, she offered to teach a beginner’s French class for a select group of homeschooled students. There was but one caveat: each student’s parent had to also attend each class with her protégés.

After about four years of applying ourselves with this wonderful opportunity, we advanced to the point where we were learning a bit about the country’s history—in French. When we got to the point of moving beyond the French Revolution to the era of the French Empire, we spent our obligatory class session regarding the pros and cons of the first Emperor of the French, Napoléon Bonaparte. We even explored the fashion statements attributed to his first wife, the Empress Joséphine.

Moving through that era of French history, we eventually came upon the reign of Napoléon’s nephew, Napoléon III. Just as we had learned the history and proper pronunciation of the name of the original Napoléon’s wife, we delved into the family constellation for his successor. Of course, this was all done in French. Some diligent, note-taking student raised her hand to ask if the teacher could spell the name of Napoléon III's wife for us.

The teacher obliged. Taking a marker to her white board, she wrote in the proper spelling for that melodious name:

E – U – G – E – N – I – E.

Not “You-JEAN-ee.”

Like this: click here and listen. Or scroll further down the link's page for directions on proper French pronunciation.

One of those lights-dawning-on-me experiences was about to happen. Of course, nobody then knew what I was thinking about.

I was remembering Mabel. And her weird middle name.

How could a couple Tennessee hillbillies in 1888 have known about Eugenie?

Photograph, above left: Empress Eugenie in mourning for her son, by photography studio W & D Downey, circa 1880, courtesy Wikipedia. Lower right: The Empress' official portrait, oil on canvas, 1853, alternately attributed to Pierre Désiré Guillemet, Leon-Joseph Billotte, or Franz Xaver Winterhalter; courtesy Wikipedia. Both items in the public domain.


  1. Just because I was curious, I thought I would see if Chevis was a "French thing". It is the name of a small fish, a "Chub". I doubt this is what the parents had in mind - so I looked to see if there were any "famous" Chevis's living in their part of Tennessee.

    I've not found any that made me think "Aha!" but I did find something interesting - and a person that might have influenced your family members in some way. wrote a book called "In the Tennessee mountains" which told of a man named Chevis. From what I've read of her work - she was quite ... insightful.

    1. I have long wondered about the source of the name, Chevis. No one in the family ever explained it. I have yet to find any ethnic origin for this Davis family, though of course I've been told they were Welsh. I'll have to wait a few more generations before I can attest to that, myself.

      Interesting finds on that French connection, Iggy, as well as the Tennessee author. While I'm pretty sure the family didn't have any origin in France, apparently, Cassie Davis was quite smitten with the French ambience ;)

  2. I have a fair collection of "back woodsy"-esque ancestors with highfalutin names. I often wonder whether they read the names in a book (what? they could read??) or heard of someone with the name.

    As for your "EugenIE," I have a EugenIA Sampson born 1857.

    1. EugenIA I've heard of, Wendy, so I'm not surprised you would have a family connection with that name--although I admit, it isn't that common a name.

      Yeah, I've been guilty of that "What? They can read?" attitude, myself.

  3. My husbands proper name is Eugene..but no one calls him that either...usually they just call him Geno:)

  4. My Grandpa went by the name "Chub," not real sure why, but knew it referred to a fish, his middle name was Eugene, too. ;)
    Now, what might you think of the name Algephia... She went by her middle name of Ann.

    1. Jodi, if I had a name like Algephia, I think I'd prefer being called Ann, too! But I'd still want to know where that name came from...a country of the family's origin? Or a much-loved older relative? A role-model, saint, or famous person? Even the meaning of a name can be fascinating and worth discovering.

      Jodi, thanks for stopping by and adding your comment. Whether Chubb or Chevis, Eugene or Eugenie--or even Algephia--these names are fascinating. It seems like each name carries a story of its own.


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