Saturday, January 20, 2024

What to Name the Baby — Southern Style


Descending the long line of generations which stretch from my fifth great-grandfather, John Carter of colonial Virginia, all the way to current-day DNA matches can be a dizzying experience. Along the way, I witnessed enough examples of naming traditions to remind me of something: figuring out what to name the baby can be far different, Southern style, than the traditions I've become acquainted with in my more northern lifestyle.

It was those singular naming quirks that reminded me of questions I've had in the past—but for which I've never received a satisfying answer. Why, for instance, do baby namesakes become encumbered not with great-grandma's given name alone, but her entire name—a name, by the way, which could go on for more than one middle name plus the woman's maiden (and maybe even married) surname. The same could go for a brand new son, now weighed down with a name heavier than his very being.

A more common tradition among these Carter descendants I'm researching might be to include a family surname as a middle name. Take, for instance, Stephen Carter Sutton, whose middle name gave a nod to the roots of his paternal grandmother, John Carter's daughter Judith. That seems to be a naming tradition not solely reserved for the Southern branches of our country's early residents, thankfully, and has been a naming device which has provided clues at several research decision points.

Even more common than that, though, is what seems to me to be a Southern tradition: people who are colloquially known by their middle names, not their first names. Why?

I get the scenario when a father names his son after himself: having two people in the same household answering to the same given name can become confusing. In many situations I've seen, the son will have his father's full name, but everyone who knows him will know he goes by his middle name, informally.

When we run across the case in which, family member after family member, everyone goes by her middle name, what about that? Over the years of researching my grandparents' Southern roots, I've seen that tendency multiple times. I have two aunts from different branches of my family who followed that same pattern. I want to know: where did that tradition come from?

This week, after running across several Carter family members in Virginia over the generations whose own situations repeated that same pattern, I decided it was time to look for some answers. While I can't say these are scientifically validated responses, at least someone else has considered the same question—and looked to find a satisfactory answer.

First of all, it was helpful to see someone else note that this naming tendency is a Southern thing. Writing for Country Living in 2017, Maria Carter confessed that she was, as she calls it, a "middle name-ite" herself, and explored the possible roots of the tradition. After outlining some of the details I've mentioned here, she pointed out one other possibility. Since the Southern way seems to be enamored with the style of two given names—Mary Beth or Sarah Ann, for instance (although if you heard both names together in the same breath from a parent, you might be in trouble)—perhaps the shortened form dropped the first name, rather than the second. Thus, Mary Beth would become Beth, and Sarah Ann simply Ann.

But where did that custom come from? Maria Carter cites one psychologist who pinned the source at a "mass migration of the Scots and Irish into the South." Upon seeing that explanation, I felt vindicated, as I had often wondered whether the habit came from early roots in another culture. Better yet, a more recent article in Southern Living examining the same phenomenon added yet another cultural source, early French immigrants, onto the list. And here I was, thinking all the time that the source might have been my eighteenth century German ancestors, whose naming traditions sometimes deferred to giving an honorary first name of, say, a saint—a name no one ever intended to actually use—before appending the working name the child became known by for the rest of his or her life.

With traditional American governmental insistence on using a first name for documents, it sometimes becomes tricky to trace these identities hiding behind their middle names. But at least now I know. I'm not the only one who noticed, digging through those Virginia documents on the Carters, that that was a Southern style when it came time to name that new baby.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...