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What's in a Name


Frequently Asked Questions

1 How much do you charge?
2 Glossary of terms used in What's in a Name
3 Abbreviations and editing terms used in What's in a Name.
4 How are Accents handled in What's in a Name?
5 What if I can't find the name I'm looking for in What's in a Name?
6 How do "Wild Card" Searching and "Browsing" work?
7 What does "Soundex" mean and how do I use it?
8 How complete is the What's in a Name database?
9 When will more names be added?
10 What Sources have been used for What's in a Name?
11 In the 1841 Census of Aberdeenshire, what do "very rare" and "rare" mean?
12 Can you explain "Scottish Naming Patterns"?
13 What are Scottish Tee-Names?
14 Representation of Gaelic Forenames
15 How Accurate are the Meanings of Forenames?
16 What forms do Dutch pet name Suffixes take?
17 Sources of Malay Names
18 Types of Surnames





1 How much do you charge?

  • There is no charge for the use of What's in a Name.


2 Glossary of Terms Used in What's in a Name

  • Definitions: PLEASE NOTE that these definitions are intended to show how we have used various words in the What's in a Name website. The Relationships we have chosen to show cannot be precise because every possible shade of relationship exists. If you feel we have misrepresented any connection between Names, please use the Contact Us form to let us know your concerns.

  • Relationship: how one name relates to another.
    • We have tried to use a standard set of definitions for the Relationships between Names and their Pet Names, Diminutives, Synonyms, etc. These will not necessarily be the same as used by other authors so the type of Relationship used in What's in a Name does not indicate that any cited source has used the same relationship type.
  • Diminutive: a short or contracted form of a name, normally the first part of it.
    • Diminutives may be used on official documents and should always be considered if a record proves difficult to trace. This class also includes semi-official abbreviations which are often found in formal documents [e.g. Alexr for Alexander, Mgt for Margaret]. These may not be found by normal wild-card or soundex search methods.
  • Pet Name: a name or nick-name.
    • These are names commonly used by relatives and friends that are not simply shortened forms of the principal name.
  • Spelling:
    • Common variations in spelling are given their own place in the database. Rare ones are included in the Notes for a Primary Name. Trivial variants may be ignored.
    • There are a number of ways of spelling most names in ancient and old records and even in current ones. Some of these spellings have given rise to distinct modern variations but many are often thought to be mis-spellings by today's standards. We have generally taken the current most popular version[s] of a name as the primary spelling[s], and centred most of the data on them. Other spellings will be linked to this primary variant. For an example, see Catherine.
    • It is suggested that anyone searching old records for a given name should arrange the search to use as many of the spelling variations as possible. For example Janet is almost the only present-day spelling but prior to about 1800, the more common spelling was Jannet. Since an initiating purpose of this web-site is to enable amateur genealogists to search around the known name of an ancestor, we have tried to indicate the main spellings used by clerks in the 19th century and earlier, where possible. Unless the search method when accessing databases of old records is able to note these variations, such as the change from Jannet to Janet, many entries may be missed.
  • Derivative: show the succession between names
    • Most names are derived from much earlier names. Where the original name is still in use or appears in old documents, we have included both in the database. Otherwise this is covered by the Notes.
    • We have tried to indicate the original [probable] meanings and sources of forenames and to show the derivation of modern variants. In some cases both the older name and its derivative have survived in its own right. We've found that some families use both names interchangeably, e.g. Cecilia and Celia. Where this is not a general usage, the derivation relationship is used, not the synonym one [see below].
  • Variant: These are of two main types:
    • (a) names that are similar but phonetically distinct, [e.g. Damon and Damian].
    • (b) equivalent names from different languages: Scottish, Gaelic, French, Latin, etc. In particular we have used this Relationship to indicate Anglicised versions of Gaelic Names which are not used interchangeably. We have defined the latter cases as Synonyms [see below].
    • Note The Oxford Names Companion defines equivalent names in different languages as "Cognates". We have grouped them under "Variants" to simplify the display. Although it is not strictly correct, the term "Cognates" is restricted on this site to different names derived from a common older name, which we define as "Lesser Synonyms".
  • Notes
    • The Notes are gathered from a variety of named sources and from personal or private communications. On occasion a source has been quoted verbatim but generally we have summarised the material to make it manageable.
    • It is in the Notes field that suggestions for finding variants on a name may be found, based, at present, on variants found in the FreeCEN 1841 Census of Aberdeenshire. Often these variants are also covered under the relationship "Can be spelt"
  • Source
    • Major sources have been identified and are cited where relevant.
    • Other sources, particularly private communications, are also often identified although anonymity has been preserved. Conflicting sources may be found. In general we have tried to give them reasonably equal standing.
    • N.B. Any errors in the text are the responsibility of the What's in a Name team, not of the original sources.
  • Synonym: primary names used interchangeably for individuals.
    • Researchers may find either version on official documents. A typical case is Elizabeth and Isobel which, in some families, may be used alternatively, apparently at the whim of the speaker. In this particular case, given the plethora of pet names and diminutives, the range of possible names in the records is extensive.
  • Cognate: names descended from the same original name [See the Note under "Variant", above].
    • Because these do not necessarily equate in society, we show these as "lesser synonyms".
  • Lesser Synonym: normally used where two or more names are cognate [as we define it].
    • Unlike synonyms, these names are not generally interchangeable, nor are they direct equivalents in different languages.


3 Abbreviations and Editing Terms in What's in a Name

  • cf. = Latin "confer" = "compare with", directing the reader to another entry which has either a similar or contrasting feature.
  • NT = Christian Bible New Testament
  • OT = Christian Bible Old Testament
  • passim refers to multiple, scattered entries across a large text.
  • q.v. "quod vide" = "which see", directing the reader to another, comparable, entry, usually for more information.


4 How are Accents handled in What's in a Name?

  • Accents [i.e. diacritical marks] in the basic ASCII set are treated as their unaccented equivalents when searching the records. This means, for instance, that Andre and André are treated as the same name. Where different languages use different accents within this set [e.g. Felix (English) and Félix (French)], one record is held but a note is made of the accenting differences. Keying either version will lead to the same entry.
  • When a name includes accents outside the basic ASCII set we have set up two records. The main one with all associated relationships has the correct accenting. The second record has no accents and includes the correct accent within the Notes for that Name. This latter record only points to the correct entry or may point to simple spelling variants. Note these accents are generally found in eastern European languages.
  • If you include non-ASCII accented characters in your Search, the result can be indeterminate due to different ways of representing these characters in various computer systems. In this case try again leaving out all accents.
  • We are working to provide separate records to be held for the accented and unaccented versions of names but the work is "in progress" and it may take some time.


5 What if I can't find the name I'm looking for in What's in a Name?

  • Have you tried Advanced Searching? The Help page has guidance on Wild Card [*] and Soundex [~] searching [see FAQ 7]. There is a Help button on every screen.
  • We make no claim to completeness nor to absolute accuracy. The site is still being developed so we want users to tell us know about any additions they would like made or errors they have found. Please let us know by using the Contact Us button on any screen.


6 How do "Wild Card" Searching and "Browsing" work?

  • If you are unsure of the spelling of a name to enter in the Search box, use Wild Card Searching. You can put in an asterisk (*) to represent a string of one or more uncertain letters. Thus searching for Eli*abeth will find Elisabeth and Elizabeth.

  • More than one asterisk can be used in the Search argument but this will slow the search process considerably.

  • If you want to Browse the list of names we store in our database, you cannot just enter an asterisk [*] in the Search box. However providing you include at least one letter in the search, you will see a list of ALL the names in the database, including variants, pet names, abbreviations, etc, containing that letter in the appropriate place. It may give you many thousand names and should only be used sparingly. It would be better to enter two or more initial letters of the part of the database you are interested in [e.g. El* will give all the names beginning "El"].

  • NB You cannot use Wild Card/Browsing and Soundex [see next FAQ] searching at the same time.


7 What does "Soundex" mean and how do I use it?

  • Soundex is a system which converts each word to a numerical "sound" equivalent by looking at its sequence of consonants. The initial letter is retained and three digits are added, depending on the following letters. The result is seldom unique so a number of equivalent words will result from a Soundex search. This can often find a suitable match when wildcards have failed. In What's in a Name we have implemented the Metaphone system where equivalent sounds are given the same coding, e.g. kr and chr.

  • Read Soundex for a detailed explanation.

  • The way to use it is to put a tilde sign [~] in front of the name you are searching for.

  • NB You cannot use Soundex at the same time as Wild Card [*] searching or Browsing.


8 How complete is the What's in a Name database?

  • This database will never be complete because new names are being used every day. Initially it only covers Scottish forenames and their derivations. Because so many names have been introduced over the last two millennia, many "foreign" names are also included. Gaelic names are being incorporated as quickly as possible.

  • Forenames from English-speaking countries are gradually being incorporated as are those from European countries. We have yet to make a decision on how many Surnames or Family names will be incorporated. The spelling of Surnames tends to be far more variable than Forenames and there is far more contention over derivations and meanings.

  • Finally, we hope to be able to add names from other countries where the roman alphabet has been used to represent their names. It is unlikely that any surnames will be included for these countries.

  • It is not intended to extend the database to include other written forms [e.g. Arabic or Chinese] but this may happen.

  • Note that the basis of this project is to provide an exchange service for amateur genealogists. Consequently we are mostly concerned to record old variations of names rather than new names. We are concentrating on older names at first.


9 When will more names be added?

  • No timescales are planned for as yet by the What's in a Name project. We will see how the initial offering works.

  • All feedback will be helpful in deciding what to do next! Use the Contact Us button on any screen! We will try to repond to all inputs as quickly as possible, usually within a day. Any suggestions will be fully considered. So far nearly all contacts have resulted in one or two new entries in the database.

  • To get a reasonably up-to-date timetable, look at the News screen.


10 What sources have been used for the What's in a Name Database?

  • The links to other web-sites that have been used as sources are listed on our Links page.

  • The information has been gathered by volunteers from a number of sources. The primary initial ones were Scottish Forenames and Scottish Surnames by Donald Whyte FGH FSD, published by Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh.

  • A considerable amount of extension and elucidation has been derived from The Oxford Names Companion, published by The Oxford University Press [OUP].

  • FreeCEN have allowed us to collate and count the forenames recorded in the 1841 Census of Aberdeenshire. This has provided a valuable insight into the variations in spelling that exist even within a single data source. We have not carried out a precise evaluation but there would seem to be an average of over 10 spelling variants for every primary name. Given the idiosyncratic spellings used by recorders, and the variations of writing styles before 1900, the genealogist must be prepared for many strange - to modern eyes - representations of names of people and places.

  • We have looked at a number of other websites to gather information particularly on Pet Names and Gaelic equivalents. We have used the list of Latin equivalents on the FreeREG web-site to indicate what you might expect to find in old documents. These sources are identified on the relevant Name records.

  • There have been many inputs from interested genealogists and, where appropriate, these have been included as Private Communication entries. All users are invited to submit names and other comments for consideration and possible inclusion. However the site administrators are the final arbiters of what may be included.
  • Hungarian names have been added during 2012, based mainly on the Magyar Nevek website.


11 In the 1841 Census of Aberdeenshire, what do "very rare" and "rare" mean?

  • The statistics from the 1841 Census of Aberdeenshire were taken when the transcription was about 85% of the whole county. This totalled over 2600 names and nearly 200,000 indicidual name entries. These definitions are necessarily arbitrary, bearing in mind that some of the parishes had not been cross-checked.

  • Spelling variations found in the Census records were only given the status of a full Name entry when they formed a significant frequency and when significant differences were found, i.e. variants that could be missed in searching old records if care was not taken.

  • "Very rare" is used when only 2-5 occurrences of a name occur. Single entries were generally ignored except when it was for a well-established spelling which featured only sparingly in Aberdeenshire lists.

  • "Rare" is used if the occurrence reaches up to around 10.

  • "Far from rare" signifies about 15-20 occurrences.

  • "Frequent" signifies over about 30 occurrences.

  • Within the above guidelines, subjective judgement was used. This only becomes important when comparisons are made between the occurrences of common spelling variations.


12 Can you explain "Scottish Naming Patterns"?

  • Forenames: Scottish families, until quite recently, often used a semi-formalised naming sequence for first names, across the generations. The pattern is also found in Irish families.

  • Remember that these are guidelines, not rules!

  • There are some variations but the principal sequence was:

    • First Son named after the Father's Father
    • Second Son named after the Mother's Father
    • Third Son named after the Father
    • Other Sons named after Parents' Brothers

    • First Daughter named after the Mother's Mother
    • Second Daughter named after the Fathers's Mother
    • Third Daughter named after the Mother
    • Other Daughters named after Parents' Sisters

  • Of course when there were similar names in the forebears, the pattern would not [necessarily] follow. Also if one child died in infancy a later child may then bear the same name in lieu.

  • Middle Names: Middle names used not to be very common in Scotland. Where they did occur, the most frequent source was the surname of the maternal grandmother. However the mother's surname was often used and, in the case of an unmarried mother, both surnames might be used, the sequence sometimes reflecting with whom the child lived.

    Where the middle name had no obvious family connection, it might reflect the name [usually the surname] of a best friend, an employer or landlord, a benefactor, the Minister or other local notable, or a national figure.

  • Further information is available from a number of other web pages, listed on our Links page.


13 What are Scottish Tee-Names?

  • Tee-Names, a form of nick-names, are found particularly in the north-east of Scotland. They were used originally to distinguish between people with the same name and might refer to a personal characteristic or trade or where the person or family lived. Often they would be chained with the mother's name (or Tee-name); for instance "Georgie Polly" would be George, the son of "Polly". Occasionally a chain of three or four such names occurred. Sometimes the rationale for the Tee-name has been lost but the use persists.

  • A correspondent [MS] has given us a detailed description and explanation of one family Tee-name. John May was born in Rathen, Aberdeenshire in 1846. He was known as Jockey Borra. Jockey is a common Scottish nick-name for John but Borra was taken from the "Northern Lights", Aurora Borealis with which he was fascinated. His sons took the same Tee-name: one was also Jockey Borra and the other, Robert, was known as Bobby Borra, although it isn't known if they also had a fascination with the Aurora.
  • Tee-names are often found in official records; the 1881 Census returns for Cullen and Buckie in the north of Banffshire include many. We will add a detailed explanation of Tee-names at a later date. Some have been included in the main database, where the Tee-name is derived from the Forename. An illustration of the use of Tee-names can be found on the Cullen Parish page on the GENUKI site.

  • An good example of the use of Tee-names can be seen at the Pirie family website
  • The following Tee-names were found in the 1881 Census returns for three families in a small area of Rathven Parish, Banffshire, Scotland:
Jappy-Lad, Jappy-Shake, Jappy-Buf, Jappy-Shak

Murray-George, Murray-Prince, Murray-Farmer,
Murray-Drainie, Murray-Diddle, Murray-Geyke,
Murray-Dottie, Murray-Coste, Murray-Lockie,
Murray-Castle, Murray-Gouke

Cowie-Bullen, Cowie-Spurrel, Cowie-Steiner,
Cowie-Coup, Cowie-Carrot, Cowie-Dosie,
Cowie-Goolie, Cowie-Pum, Cowie, Sandir,
Cowie-Diddle, Cowie-Upple
  • There have been cases reported in a Census of the Tee-name of a family being recorded as the apparent Surname, with the surname reduced to a single middle initial letter. This suggests that, if such a family can't be found in the records, it might on occasion be worth trying to find the Tee-name.


14 Representation of Gaelic Forenames

  • In Gaelic, as in many other languages, there are variations in the spelling and pronunciation of the same name depending on the locality or the historical period. However in Gaelic the spelling of nouns, and hence of personal names, is also affected by grammatical considerations (see the paper by Sharon L. Kossa: "Gaelic Lenition") and this has indexing implications.

  • It is obviously impossible to go into details of Gaelic grammar or pronunciation here. We can, however, alert you to the effects of lenition. Because in some circumstances the initial consonant of a noun has a modified sound, the following letters at the beginning of Gaelic Forenames:

    B- C- D- F- G- M- P- S- T-

    may appear in some records as:

    Bh- Ch- Dh- Fh- Gh- Mh- Ph- Sh- Th-
  • In addition, the letter 'i' may be inserted before the last consonant or consonant group of the name.

  • This is an example of both grammatical modifications:

    • The English name Thomas is the equivalent of Tòmas in Gaelic.

    • However son of Thomas is translated as mac Thòmais in Gaelic.

  • Within the What's In A Name website we will follow the normal procedure of recording Gaelic Forenames in the basic form, i.e. without the lenitive 'h'. However, it should be noted that the Gaelic for Walter is either Bhàtair or Bhaltair which are always spelt with both the lenitive 'h' and the penultimate 'i'.

  • We have noted that spellings such as Mhairi, derived from the Gaelic vocative case of Màiri [Mary], are being used as given names. However, we will only include this type of variant when its use is frequent. We will make a note to look at the basic name, When seeking such names on this site. Soundex, which ignores the letter 'h' and vowels apart from their occurence as initial letters, will find the basic variant for you.

    • [The What's In A Name team would like to thank ST for all her valuable help on this summary of what is a quite complex question. Any errors are ours.]
  • Neil Street [of] has written a short article about Irish forenames with particular reference to the turbulent history of the country and the complex sources of names there.


15 How Accurate are the Meanings of Forenames?

  • The simple answer is "not at all".

  • The meanings of forenames are always the subject of debate even amongst experts.  While some names have well-established rationales, in particular occupational names, most have been the subject of conjecture and downright guesses.  We have included meanings to give an indication of the sort of origins that names can have.  In general we have given the full derivation, where known, under the English variants with a brief summary for other language variations.

  • We make no claims for the meanings given.  There are many websites giving a variety of meanings.  Some of these sites have been listed on our "Links" page.


16 What forms do Dutch pet name Suffixes take?

  • Nearly all Dutch names may have a pet name suffix "-je" or "-ke" added, with the connotation of "wee, lovely, etc".  This may be used as a full name for females but for males it is generally only used for young boys.  For examples see Klaske or Pieterje. We have not added the suffix to all Dutch names on this website as they may apply to virtually any Dutch name.  This use of these suffices also applies in Flanders. [Source: Private correspondent TL3.]


17 Sources of Malay Names

  • We have used the Wikidictionary Website as a primary source for Malay Names.  However a number of other sites have been studied for some individual names, both for their meanings [especially Google Translator] and to try to find origins.
  • Other sources include:  Baby Names (formerly known as "").


18 Types of Surnames

  • Surnames are being added to the site simply as a way of relating derived names to a 'primary' surname. It is not intended to try to make the surnames included exhaustive but we are aware that it is not always easy to find a 'subsidiary' surname in reference books. Our primary source has been the Oxford Names Companion [OUP].
  • Surnames may be classified in several ways and types may be combined.  Primary names are derived from the original source in one or more languages.  We have shown most as variants of the primary English form - or of a foreign form where English is derived from another language.  Note that most surnames apart from aristocratic ones were adopted for the bulk of the population in the middle of the last millenium when detailed records required differntiation between people with the same forenames.  These are the major types:
    • Patronymic: derived from a father's, or rarely mother's, given name. In English "Johnson" is typical.
    • Habitation: from a placename e.g. "Lancaster" for someone who came from that city.
    • Topographical: from the place someone lived, e.g. "Lake" for someone who lived by a lake.
    • Personal Attribute: from a particular feature of the person, e.g. "Cruikshank, Crookshank" for someone with a crooked leg. These were often derived from nick-names e.g. "Blake" for a swarthy person.
    • Occupation names: e.g  "Baker", "Thatcher".
    • Employer's name: usually from the name of the major landowner, or important personage.
    • Group, clan or descendants: typically "Mc--" names in Scotland or "O'--" names in Ireland.
    • Diminutive: these can arise in many ways and the association with the primary name is not always obvious.  For instance the surname "Adam" has many diminutive variants, e.g. "Adnett", "Ade", "Atkin".  We haven't attempted to note these derivations under the primary name - it is noted under the variant.
  • The inclusion of surnames will take a consideral amount of work.  Names will be added continuously.  The News page will give indications of how much progress has been made.




This page last updated November 2013.


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