Genealogy: Look for cultural naming patterns

PatternBy Barry J. Ewell
Many cultures have very specific naming patterns that provide important clues in identify family units that may be connected from one generation to the next. When you are working on a family you know to be a specific religion or nationality, check to see if there are naming patterns common to that group.

You probably already know at least one country from which your ancestors come from.  Do a little research to see if there are naming patterns that were associated with the culture and whether your family used the pattern. One of my ancestral lines is Scotts-Irish. The Scotts-Irish families follow the custom of naming their children after the grandparents in the following manner:

  • First-born son named for the paternal grandfather.
  • Second son named for the maternal grandfather.
  • Third son named for the father.
  • First-born daughter named for the maternal grandmother.
  • Second daughter named for the paternal grandmother.
  • Third daughter named for the mother.

Notes on Scottish naming patterns: This practice can cause families to have two children with the same name if the grandparents had the same name. The process also started over if the parent remarried, so it is common to find half brothers or sisters with the same names. Not all Scottish families followed this pattern, but many did long after leaving Scotland.  My family used this pattern from the middle 1700’s through the middle 1800’s.

One variation of the pattern above was for the eldest son to be named after the mother’s father and the eldest daughter after the father’s mother.

I have had scenario’s where first born son was to receive the name of John. Within one year of birth, John died.  The next son to be born was named John.  Even though this child was the second son, his name was treated as though he was the first son born. I had another family where the first four sons passed away before the age of five with the fifth son living to become an adult. Every one of the boys received name of George.  At first I thought I had just one person, but when I understood the cultural naming pattern, was able to sort through the names I was seeing in the census records.

When I was researching a German family line, I noticed that all the children were given two names, but were called by the second.  Frequently, all the boys in the family had the same first name, or a variation of the same name, such as Johann/Hans, but were called by their second names. And the girls in the family might all have the first name Anna or Maria.  The children may be referred to with both names or just the second.  Here are the children of Conrad Wagner and Anna Maria Schneider:


  • Conrad Hans
  • Conrad Georg
  • Conrad Wolfgang
  • Conrad Thomas
  • Conrad Johnannes


  • Maria Elizabeth
  • Maria Christena
  • Maria Caterina

When you are become aware of such naming patterns with in families, you will be able to sort out which person you are researching when you see different documents that may use different names for the same child.  It can help you from making mistakes of adding more people to the family then really exist such as when an adult, Maria Christena returns to using his first given name (Maria) after being know by his second as a child (Christena).

Another naming pattern I have found in my family line is that of patronymics.  Patronymics names of the children are derived from a father’s name or paternal side of the family and are particularly prevalent in the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.  For example, if your father was named Eric and your son was named John, his name would be John Ericssen which means that John is the son of Eric.  If Eric had a daughter named Anne, her name would be Anne Ericsdatter, meaning Anne is the daughter of Eric.

Every generation the last name (surname) will change. For example,

  • Eric Hanssen had a son named John.
  • Johns’ name was John Ericssen and he had a son named Thomas.
  • Thomas’ name was Thomas Johnson.

The son can be written as either son/sen and daughter can be writer as datter/dotter which is usually country related.

At first it may seem that patronymics are rather confusing but once you get the hang of it, you will be able to sort out who belongs to whom between generations.  When ancestors immigrated from these countries to America, the practice of patronymics may of continued for generation or two, but most families discontinued the practice in the 1800’s and decided to keep the last name.  For example if you last name is like Jesseson/sen, Erikson/sen, Hanson/sen, Larson/sen, Pederson/sen chances are your family stems from patronymic origins.

I have also found version of patronymics used in my family lines from the United Kingdom.  The suffix of “son” was used.  For example I have seen family names with the Williamson and Jameson that were also expressed as Williams and James.  These surnames did not necessarily change every generation.  I have also seen other prefixes and suffixes that were used to denote sons or daughter among them.  For example you will see

  • O (Irish)
  • Ab or Ap (Welch)
  • Mac or Mc (Scotish)
  • Fitz (English)
  • Ich or Itch (Cornish)

Many of my Welch ancestors who can to Utah in the 1850’s were buried with Welch inscriptions on their gravestones, many of which include patronymics.   The Welsh for son is “Mab/ap.” For example there are two headstones that I am thinking of

  • Gwenenllian ferch Rhys means Gwenllian the daughter of Ryes
  • Madog ap Rhys means Madog the sons of Rhys

As I learned about Welch patronymics it was insightful to see how the patronymic origins were morphed into modern day surnames.  For example

  • ab Owain became Bowen
  • ap Rhys became Price
  • ab Evan became Bevan
  • ap Hywel became Powell
  • ap Hugh became Pugh

By being aware of cultural naming patterns, I have been able to see clues and resolve issues in connecting families within a generation and/or from one generation to the next.  A good staring point would be to conduct a simple Google search such as

  • Scotts-Irish or Scotch-Irish naming patterns
  • Catholic naming patterns
  • German naming customs
  • French naming patterns
  • Patronymics
  • Scandinavian etymology
  • Swedish naming practices

Also see the articles