Saturday, April 2, 2016

Naming the Baby:
What Our Parents Did to Us

Some people may hate the name they've been given by their parents, although looking at it dispassionately, it may turn out to be a rather innocuous and plain selection. My aunt, for instance, felt that way about her first name, and once she was of age, never used it, going instead by her middle name. (Her first name, by the way, was Sara. See? Harmless.)

There are others in this world, burdened with the cumbersome reminder of just how awkward a choice of name was bestowed upon them, every time they open their mouth to introduce themselves.

So much can go into the choosing of a name. There are entire books written on the topic, made just for those parents who agonize over the decision. It is as if the name alone is what will launch their little darling into the world—a world of success, with just the right choice. If not—shudder!—a name dooming the poor tyke to ignominy.

Perhaps that is the angst lying behind the parental option of choosing an admired public figure from which to borrow a name. In centuries past, there have been ample selections of George Washingtons and Benjamin Franklins appended to whatever surname belonged to the parents-to-be. And then there is the Catholic tradition—a reminder of their heritage as well as emulation of those with superb character qualities—in which parents name their children after the saints they most admire.

Not everyone goes that virtuous route, however. One wonders, sometimes, what parents were thinking when they designed the perfect appellation for their progeny. Were they hoping to live vicariously through the conquests of their offspring? Or flaunt that rebellious streak, as in the awarding of Jesse James namesakes—or, in the south, of those dubbed John Wilkes Booth.

Some names do have the tendency to reappear, over the generations. We're quite happy to gift junior with a "family name" if it's something like Madison, or name him after great-grandpa, if his name is as innocuous as Bill Ross or Frank Smith. But sometimes, the choices that worked quite well in 1825 don't blend quite as deftly in 2016.

Of course, those of us who regularly flex our genealogy muscles have the capabilities to trace those names back through the generations—especially those more awkward ones. We have the tools to target the origins and significance of those names, even if it hardly helps the bearers of such unfortunate burdens.

That is the task we'll take up in the next few days, as we explore the origins of the name of a medical doctor and missionary who left his home in the Chicago area to sail to India in 1862.


  1. I remember about 35 years ago when my friend decided to name her daughter after a favorite aunt. The aunt was horrified because she believed her name to be too old fashioned, too "old lady." The name? Laura.

    1. Isn't that crazy?! There must be an entire field of study on the psychology of names and naming. Names definitely come with baggage.

  2. How timely! I was just over at Farside's looking at a Gilbert Gilbertson...

    1. Ah! Is that the "G. A. Gilbertson" mentioned on today's photo there? Did you find a connection already, Iggy?


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