British Naming Conventions

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Modern habits for naming children often focus on what sounds good to the new parents, and what sounds good is heavily influenced by popular culture. For this reason, there is a trendy flood of Jason, Justin, or Jared and a flood of Zach and Megan - names almost unheard of 20 years ago.

In older Great Britain, other norms governed the naming of children. For example, family researchers might run across Biblical names, such as Zacharias or Benjamin, or names for religious principles, like Faith, Hope, and Charity.  Such names were not common in England and may suggest that the family was particularly committed to religion and may have been non-conformist dissenters (belonged to a church other than the state Church of England, or Anglican). This can be a significant hint to the family researcher.

The most common convention, however, was for the parents to choose names that honored people. Sometimes the people so honored were powerful people, such as a local, wealthy landowner. Sometimes the names honored royalty. So there were many Henrys named after King Henry and many Georges named after King George. The most common persons to honor, however, were the gender appropriate grandparents and parents. This can be another hint to differentiate between two sets of same-name parents having children in the same town or village or to the likelihood of a “missing” child in a family. It also introduces the concept of “replacement” children. Often considered repugnant to modern ears, a child’s untimely death meant the end of the honor bestowed upon someone. Since many children died in the 17th and 18th centuries, parents had no problem with re-using the name of a dead child for a subsequent birth. A family might, therefore, have several John or Jane children. Occasionally, the same name was given to more than one living child, but this was rare. The re-use of a name almost always meant that the first child with that name had died.

There was even a convention in the order in which the ancestors were honored – probably to avoid insulting anyone. Although it was far from universally used, the usual British naming convention was as follows:

• The first son was named after the paternal grandfather
• The second son was named after the maternal grandfather
• The third son was named after the father
• The fourth son was named after the oldest paternal uncle
• The fifth was named after the second oldest paternal uncle or the oldest maternal uncle

• The first daughter was named after the maternal grandmother
• The second daughter was named after the paternal grandmother
• The third daughter was named after the mother
• The fourth daughter was named after the oldest maternal aunt
• The fifth was named after the second oldest maternal aunt or the oldest paternal aunt

If there was duplication (for example, the paternal grandfather and the father had the same name), then the family moved to the next position on the list.

For More Information

A book describing early English naming practices is Scott Smith-Bannister, Names and Naming Patterns in England, 1538-1700. (Oxford Historical Monographs) New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.