What’s in a name?

Posted by Aaron on

Do you realize how important your name is? It identifies you to the rest of the world, and helps make you unique. Even if we personally had no say in what we were named, someone chose your name for you, with a reason. Were you named after a beloved relative? A friend of one of your parents? A movie star or popular musician? A town? An occupation? In my own case, I was given the first and middle names of a long-ago ancestor, and I have been proud to carry on her name.

Each year, the first complete week in March is Celebrate Your Name Week. This year’s has passed–it was March 4-10, but please join me in honoring names.

First names

Most parents agonize over what to name their children. They want to choose a personal (first) name that will be respected, has a good/nice meaning, and will work as a name for a child as well as an adult. Some parents like names that are trendy or unusual; others prefer to choose a name usually thought of as a nickname (Becky vs. Rebecca). To find names, their origins and their meanings, many new parents consult baby name books. The library has some books to help you get started:

The Baby Name Wizard: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby by Laura Wattenberg
The Best Baby Names Treasury: Your Ultimate Naming Resource by Emily Larson
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 40,000 Baby Names by Marcia Layton Turner
Cool Irish Names for Babies by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz
A Dictionary of First Names by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges

Last names

Our last names (also called family names or surnames) are not usually chosen by us. The concept of a surname is a fairly recent invention. In Medieval and earlier times, a person might be known as “Peter the miller” (after his occupation) or “James son of John” (to distinguish him from “James son of Peter” or “James son of Robert”). Have you ever wondered what your surname means? Where it came from? If so, these books will help. In most of them, the names are arranged alphabetically:

Dictionary of American Family Names (3 volumes) by Elsdon C. Smith
English Ancestral Names by J.R. Dolan. This book is very interesting since each chapter covers the surnames related to a certain Medieval occupation; it includes smiths, leather makers, farmers, millers, entertainers, clergy, lawmen, and many others.
New Dictionary of American Family Names edited by Patrick Hanks
The Origin and Signification of Scottish Surnames by Clifford Stanley Sims (lists some first names too)
The Surnames of Wales by John & Sheila Rowlands

Are you curious about where your name came from and what it means? If you need assistance with your search, just ask a reference librarian; we are happy to help!

∼ Vicky, Reference Librarian, Warrenton central library

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