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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Polygenetic names are those that have more than one derivation. The definition includes names of all four main types where there was more than one originator, for example the occupational name Baker or the habitational name Newton. It also includes those surnames for which different types of origins have been found. A couple of examples of the latter type will indicate the diversity possible, and indeed common:
- Earliest spelling in Sussex in 1257 is de Teggeherugge which derives from tegge (‘a pasture where young sheep are reared’ and hrugge (‘ridge’) (Gower).
- Anglicized form of Irish Gaelic Ó Taidhg (‘poet or bard’).
- Cornish tek (‘fair, beautiful’), a nickname for a handsome person (Hanks and Hodges 1988).
- Occupational name for someone who made things out of horn, an early substitute for glass.
- Occupational name for someone who played a horn, either musically or as a signal.
- Location name for someone who lived by a horn-shaped spur of a hill, or tongue of land in a bend in a river.
- Specific location name from a place named Horn(e).
- Nickname from some feature of a person’s appearance (protuberance of head or hair), or behaviour (cuckolded husbands were said to grow horns).
- Jewish surname, perhaps referring to blowing of ram’s horn in Synagogue ceremonies (Hanks and Hodges 1988).
It can be readily seen that today’s spelling of the surname may hide the fact it has more than one origin. It is therefore very important to recognize all the possibilities and work backwards to the earliest dates and spellings possible in the pedigree before making an hypothesis about the origin of any particular surname.
Extra Differentiating Surnames
These have been found necessary not only in countries using patronymics but also where any surnames are common. They are added after the regular surname and may become hereditary. The researcher will find them referred to as By-Names, To-Names, Other Names, Tee Names (Teetles) and Styling.
Some English by-names become hereditary, for example Norman Holding’s 19th century example of John Cotgrove, nicknamed Tolly who had a son John William COTGROVE known to his friends as Billy Tolly, a patronymic reference to his father. Tolly was passed down as the surname in that branch of the family (Lawrence 1998). John Titford (Succeeding in Family History. Helpful Hints and Time-saving Tips. Countryside Books. 2001) has a number of interesting examples.
Scottish ‘Tee Names’ or ‘Teetles’
In small, isolated communities such as the fishing villages of north east Scotland, the people had kept to themselves for hundreds of years, and few surnames existed; in Findochty, Banffshire there were but four surnames amongst 182 fishermen. Combine this dearth with a limited number of first names and the necessity for local differentiating nicknames becomes clear. They were always used orally, and are often, but not always found in the documents and on gravestones as well. Tee-names were also common in the Border country and in the West Highlands. Scottish tee-names include English epithets such as Cyka, Dobbie, Dranie and Tosh (Murray), as well as Gaelic descriptive words such as those found below (Mitchell):
Common Scottish Gaelic Tee-Names
|Gall or geall||Gall, galt or gauld||White, ‘foreigner’ (incomer, lowlander)|
|Riabhach||Riach||Speckled or grizzled|
Articles in Maclean’s magazine during 2001 focussed on 200 years of nicknaming that the Cape Breton Islanders call styling. It is an isolated, close-knit community with ‘an unusually shallow pool’ of both surnames and given names. Hence the need for identifiers and among those quoted were those referring to physical characteristics such as Alex the Clock (who had one arm shorter than the other) and Pockmarked Donald.
Family lore accounted for Johnny Big John, the Biscuit Foot MacKinnon family, the Colorado Smiths (one of their number rode with Jesse James), and the Pickle Arse Macleans (a long-dead member of their family liked to sit on the pickle barrel at the local store—sorry, I couldn’t resist that one!) Some are decidedly patronymic, for example Neilie Dixon Donald Grace MacDonald whose given name was Neil, father was Dixon, grandfather Donald and great-grandmother Grace.
A follow-up from Ontario contributed a similar list from their town of Alexandria in the late 1800s. The neighbours at that time included Archie Baldy, Cracked Nancy, Dribbling Duncan, Duncan the Rogue, Fog Horn MacDonald (with his loud voice and overbearing manner), Frozen Neil, Ice Cream Katie (who ran the local tea room), One-eyed Norman, Squinty Jim, the Yes-yes McQuaigs, (sisters who constantly murmured their agreement), and Wall-eyed Sally. The mind no longer boggles when confronted with some of the so-called weird epithets given in mediaeval times!
The by-names of Wales were nicknames used mainly informally, and thus rarely written down. They stemmed from the residence or occupation of the bearer, and one can find delightful examples such as Jones the Milk, Dai Post and Evans the Death in the works of author Dylan Thomas.
An alias is a second surname used by an individual, today referred to as a.k.a. (also known as). Frequently the term alias was abbreviated to als, and can be noted by otherwise or contractions of it. In German the term is genannt, and in French dit. Nowadays an alias connotes concealment of identity, and avoiding associations with past misdeeds has always been one reason. However, most aliases one comes across in genealogy are not of this type. There are several ways in which it may have been acquired, and it most commonly enables a name to be perpetuated that otherwise would not be. Ron Phelps (Index of Alias Names. Journal of One-Name Studies. Vol 5 #10, pages 304-305) offered these factors which may have led to the use of an alias:
- Condition for a marriage.
- Recognition of a maiden name, for example when a common-law Jones couple later decide to marry, the woman may be entered as Jones alias Smith.
- To distinguish themselves from another of the same name in the vicinity. This may derive from where he lived, his occupation or perhaps be a nickname. Some of these would die with the original ‘owner’ whilst others survived to differentiate between their descendants.
- As a nickname.
- To clarify acceptable spelling variations like Phillips alias Phelps.
- Ownership or occupation of property (Hidden).
- Starting a new life upon immigration, or after prison, or after another circumstance with which the person concerned wished to sever connections.
- Assumption of another surname for a child during a period of apprenticeship or of care within a family of a different name.
- The means to make public a desired change of name.
- To avoid persecution. Mitchell has described the frequent use of hereditary aliases amongst Roman Catholics in Banffshire and how their study enabled pedigrees to be compiled.
- To avoid association with scandalous relatives.
- To anglicize a foreign or unfortunate surname.
- There is a special case at the Restoration (1660) when the church didn’t recognize marriages not performed by the parish priest. Until the couple had been remarried properly in church then their offspring were referred to as X alias Y.
- Reasons of a nefarious nature.
Aliases may first be expressed as, say, Greene alias Gladman and later in life or in the next generation become Gladman alias Greene. Then at some time a descendant may have opted for the one he preferred and the other will not be recorded again. Just to confuse the genealogist a different member of the family might have chosen the other name! Sometimes the two names are later hyphenated, as Gladman-Greene or Greene-Gladman, according to individual preference. Aliases may have lasted a few years or for several generations. It is up to the researcher to carefully examine every entry in the surviving parish documents to find when the alias was adopted.
A pertinent quote from the Master of the Rolls in 1730 (Cole 1999) is that:
|‘Anyone may take upon him what surname and as many surnames as he pleases. If a person is known in a different locality by a different name then that person has two names, if he is known in 20 places by 20 different names, then he has 20 legal names, all aliases.’|
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at email@example.com
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