Genealogy: Finding clues in family naming patterns

Finding clues in family naming patternsfournBy Barry J. Ewell

As you search for your ancestor, one of the clues to help identify family is when you see the same names used again and again. Many cultures have long made it a practice to honor their elders by naming their children after them. Just when one suggests that you can find family based on a naming pattern, that’s when your family won’t follow the pattern. You will, however, see names of parents and grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles repeated, but not in any strict order. While over half of the names in a family will prob¬ably appear to be repeats, there always seems to be a few totally different ones. A child might be named after a good friend or a popular hero of the times.

In Western Europe, there were three ways of acquiring a surname:

  1. Occupation—Names which are derived from trades and occupations—mostly found in towns. Occupational surnames are self-explanatory: Taylor (tailor) Baxter (baker) and Cooper (barrel maker). Some apparently obvious occupational names aren’t what they may seem, however. A Farmer did not work in agriculture but collected taxes, and Banker is not an occupational surname at all, meaning “dweller on a hillside.”
  2. Locality—Surnames representing localities are easy to spot if they come from a specific geographical area or part of land: Marsh, Middleton, Sidney, or Ireland, for example. The evolution of language from other localities are less obvious: Cullen (“back of the river”), and Dunlop (“muddy hill”).
  3. Nickname—Names which could refer to color or size, (White, Black, Small, Little). Nicknames are perhaps the most fascinating surnames—but not always very flattering to one’s ancestor. Gotobed, for example, stemmed from someone who was very lazy, and Kennedy is Gaelic for “ugly head.”

As a general rule of thumb, the following naming patterns were used in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. (Check your individual ethnic group for variations.)


  • First son: named for his paternal grandfather.
  • Second son: named for his maternal grandfather.
  • Third son: named after father or father’s paternal grandfather.
  • Fourth son: named after father’s oldest brother or mother’s paternal grandfather.
  • Fifth son: named after mother’s eldest brother or father’s material grandfather.
  • Sixth son: named after father’s second oldest brother or for mother’s maternal grandfather.


  • First daughter: named for maternal grandmother.
  • Second daughter: named for her paternal grandmother.
  • Third daughter: named after mother or for mother’s maternal grandmother.
  • Fourth daughter: named after mother’s oldest sister or for father’s paternal grandmother.
  • Fifth daughter: named after father’s eldest sister or for mother’s paternal grandmother.
  • Sixth daughter: named after mother’s second oldest sister or for father’s paternal grandmother.

The following is an example of the Scotch-Irish naming patterns. Click on image to view detail.

Finding clues in family naming patterns


  • With people being what they are, there were all sorts of variations, some covered by rules and some by family decision.
  • It was customary to name the next daughter or son born within a second marriage for the deceased husband or wife.
  • If a father died before his child was born, the child was often named for him. If a mother died in childbirth, that child, if a girl, was usually named for the mother.
  • Another child was commonly named for a child who had died within the family.
  • Searching for the origins of immigrant ancestors is among the most challenging yet rewarding research I have conducted as a genealogist. It requires an eye for detail and the ability to see your ancestors in the times and seasons in which they lived. As you gain the skills to conduct this research, you will be able manage with confidence your ancestral research.