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Welcome to the What's in a Name website

About Us


This website is under continuous development. It was started when it was found that many forenames in Scotland were interchangeable in ways not obvious to a non-Scot.

What's in a Name has been privately developed and is offered to amateur genealogists free of charge but no claims are made as to the accuracy or completeness of the information.


Information has been generously made available by Donald Whyte whose books Scottish Forenames and Scottish Surnames, published by Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, have provided much of the source material. Other authorities have been consulted, most notably The Oxford Names Companion, published by the OUP. Where other sources have been used, this has been acknowledged in the records. We are grateful for the many inputs we have received from correspondents around the world.

To check the database, we have also examined the 1841 Census records for Aberdeenshire, with the permission of FreeCEN which provides a free search facility for UK Census records. The FreeCEN database is being continuously extended. Some parishes have records for other Census years already available. The FreeCEN site provides search facilities with a full list of available parishes.

Please note that FreeCEN is based on Crown Copyright material.


The initial purpose of What's in a Name is to enable Genealogists to find possible variations for a given forename when tracing distant ancestors. There are many possible reasons for variations. Some names are used as synonyms [e.g. in Scotland Peter=Patrick and Jean=Jane] and some variants are simple changes in spelling either over time or by the quirk of the recording authority. In many cases diminutives or pet names can be found in official documents and these have been included. We have also included non-verbal abbreviations that occur reasonably frequently in the 1841 Census of Aberdeenshire [e.g. Wm. Wilm. and Willm. for William].

Wild Card and Soundex searching facilities are separately supported. When you enter a name in the Search field you can use an asterisk [*] as a Wild Card for any unknown or uncertain letter or letters. Alternatively, you can precede the name with a tilde [~] to get a Soundex search. What's in a Name will display a list of all names that meet the criteria. You can then select each name that meets or appears to meet your needs.

Browsing is supported in that you can enter one or more letters followed by an asterisk [e.g. al*] and What's in a Name will display all names starting with the specified letter or letters.

When a name is displayed, we list essential variations for that name and include notes and sources for the information. Each name displayed can be used as a link to display its own variations so a genealogist can find out what other possibilities exist for an old entry. A trail of the names selected will also be displayed so you can backtrack easily.

Future Developments

Because forenames change with time and across national boundaries, many non-English and trans-national names are already included, both for equivalents and for derivations. We are in the process of extending the coverage of forenames across the United Kingdom, other English-speaking countries and Europe. Ultimately we hope to have included any name systems based on the extended Roman alphabet. Accents can create difficulties in Internet systems so we have tried to allow for the several representations and sorting processes that may be needed. In general a search based on non-accented characters should enable searchers to find names with any European accents.

As at February 2013, a long list of Hungarian forenames has been added and most European forenames are now on-line, excluding Cyrillic and Greek forms.

Surnames have been included in a small number of cases where they have a special relevance to the forenames. We are slowly adding surnames in a simplified form so that researchers may be able to discover non-obvious variants that could help their work.  In Europe there are upwards of 300,000 surname forms so digitising this data will take time.

User Comments and Suggestions

What's in a Name users can comment on the site or its data content, submit a Name for consideration or suggest new relationships by using the form provided on the Contact Us page - there is a link on every page. Where possible formal or anecdotal evidence should be included. Polite comments will be welcomed and you should receive a response within a short time. Whether suggestions are acted upon will be at the sole discretion of the What's in a Name team.

Conditions of Use

What's in a Name has been privately developed and is offered to amateur genealogists free of charge.

No claims are made for exact accuracy in the What's in a Name database. The social habits of naming offspring have varied from time to time over the centuries and from place to place throughout the world. Explanations of the derivation of names is always to a large extent subjective and we have not included the more exotic modern names so popular with so-called celebrities! Anyone wishing to gain insight into particular names is recommended to consult Donald Whyte's books and one or more of the extensive references he has listed.

The What's in a Name Team wish you successful searching

Ray Hennessy, Team Coordinator.

Page last updated November 2013.

Thanks to Donald Whyte who provided much of the initial information for this site. Copyright: Ray Hennessy 2004-2013  
Website development by Akriga