Sunday, November 18, 2012


     When I interview a person for family history purposes, I begin by asking him or her to state his or her name. I notice that many interviewers will skip this question or state it themselves. However,  the simple question "What is your full name?" can uncover a story.
     When I was interviewing my husband's aunt, I began as usual, asking her to state her name. I heard snickering behind me about the "dumb" question (I made the mistake of allowing extended family members to observe the interview, a mistake I will never make again--more on that topic in a later post!). Well, the snickers died very quickly when the aunt revealed that Shirley was not the name given to her at birth, but was imposed upon her by a first grade teacher who did not like her given name, Cillie. The teacher thought it terrible that a girl should be called "silly." No other living person in the family was aware of this name change. Shirley also told the story of her Hebrew name, Zipporah, which her family used as her first name. Her childhood nickname was "Zippy." Had I not asked her to state her name, all these stories might have been lost to her family.
     When interviewing persons from certain cultures, asking about their name can be especially important. Jewish parents usually give their children Hebrew names as well as a forename common in the culture of residence. Many Irish Americans use their middle names instead of their forenames, especially if there are multiple Patrick's and Mary's in the extended clan. In various American families, I have met men who go by the name Trey, and even Quarti, because they were the third and fourth in the ancestral lineage of their birth names.
     I have interviewed many Catholics who were eager to tell me their confirmation name when stating their names.  I have met people who have used their nicknames for so many decades that even their closest friends, and some relatives, do no know that they have a different name on their birth certificate.
     Of course, there are many people who have changed their first names legally. I have met a few people who discovered as adults that their official birth certificates bore a different name or spelling. In one such case, the person attributed the different spelling to official error. But another woman had no idea whether her (deceased) mother had in fact named her Edith at birth instead of Emily (then changed her mind but not the birth certificate), or whether her birth certificate was in error.
     Don't forget to ask your interviewee if there is a story attached to their name. Were they named after a movie star (Deborah Kerr in my own case) or a favorite grandparent? Names tell stories, too!