What’s in a Name?: Frequency Analyis of Ancestral Given Names in My Family Tree

Many years ago, when she was pregnant and thinking about baby names, my sister-in-law Ainslie asked me for a list of given names of ancestors on the Szczepankiewicz side of the family. Little did she know how well this simple question would play into my lifelong fascination with given names. Given my obsession with genealogy, I wasn’t about to jot down ancestral given names for a few generations and call it a day. Nope, I decided to develop a spreadsheet that included given names on both sides of the family, and the frequency with which each name appeared. As my research has progressed over the years, I’ve continued to add to this spreadsheet, each time a new generation of ancestors is discovered. Today I’ll discuss the data from my own family, and another day I’ll delve into the data from my husband’s side.

Determining the frequency with which given names appear in the family tree isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Relatively few of my ancestors’ given names are in English, since most of my ancestry is Polish or German. And German ancestry opens the door to the question of how to count German double names like Johann Heinrich or Maria Magdalena. According to German custom, the second name is the rufname, or call name, by which the person is known. So it’s not uncommon to see an entire family of boys with the first name Johann and different middle names. Common first names for girls are Maria or Anna, again used in combination with different rufnamen. However, the waters are muddied because Johannes can be used as a call name, usually for an oldest son.

The Rules of the Game

With all this in mind, here are the ground rules I developed for assessing the popularity of  given names in my family tree:

  1. Equivalent versions of the same name in different languages (e.g. John, Jan and Johann) were all counted in the same category.
  2. In Polish culture dating from the mid 20th-century and earlier, the name “Maria” was revered as the name of the Mother of God, and it was considered inappropriate for parents to aspire to use this name for their daughter. Consequently, the name  Marianna, meaning, “like Mary,” was used instead. For the purpose of this analysis, Mary, Marie, Maria, and Marianna were all treated as equivalents and counted together.
  3. If existing data suggest that a German man with the first name “Johann” used a different call name, he is recorded under that call name. If there is no known call name, I assumed he used the name Johann (or some diminutive thereof) in daily life.
  4. In cases where a woman seemed to use two names equally (e.g. Margaretha Elisabeth) or was equally likely to be recorded under her first name or her middle name (e.g. Maria Magdalena, who was sometimes recorded as Mary and sometimes as Magdalena) I used her first name for the popularity ranking.
  5. The names Maciej/Matthias and Mateusz/Matthew were counted separately, even though they have the same ancient etymological orgin, because the distinction between these names dates back to the New Testament.
  6. Similarly, although the name Harry is a traditional diminutive of Henry, it was not used that way in my family, so I counted those names separately.
  7. German immigrants named Walburga often chose to use the name Barbara in America. However, in the single instance in my family where this was the case, I counted her under her baptismal name, Walburga, since St. Walburga and St. Barbara are two different patron saints.
  8. Christina and Christiana were counted together (same etymological origin).
  9. Only direct ancestors were counted.

The Results

The data covered 96 women and 95 men who were born between about 1670 and the 1940s. Some of the results were as expected. Just as John and Mary were the most popular given names in the U.S. throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, they were the most popular names in my family tree as well. However, those same data from the U.S. indicate that William was a close second to John throughout this time period, even overtaking it in some time periods, and this name does not appear at all among my male ancestors.

Male name frequency

Additional names which appeared in the family twice each are Anthony/Antoni, Casimir/Kazimierz, Christoph/Krzysztof, Harry, Matthias/Maciej, Peter/Piotr, Thomas/Tomasz, and Lawrence/Wawrzyniec. Names which appears once each in the family are Carl, Fidel, Gregory/Grzegorz, Ignatius/Ignacy, Lucas/Łukasz, Martin/Marcin, Matthew/Mateusz, Nicholas/Niklaus, Paul/Paweł, Phillip/Philipp, Roch, Sebastian, Simon, Ulrich, and Wenceslaus/Wenzeslaus.

My family’s Catholic roots are very evident in the large number of saints’ names in the list, especially saints popular in central Europe, (unlike poor St. William). Among male names, the top three names (John, Francis, Michael) comprised about 33% of the total, whereas the top three female names (Mary, Catherine, Anna) comprised nearly half the total (47%). Interestingly, there were exactly 34 “different” names (as defined in the Rules of the Game, above) in each data set (male and female), indicating less overall variability among female names. Additional female names that appeared once each in the family tree are Agatha/Agata, Cecilia/Cecylia, Dorothy/Dorota, Elaine, Felicia, Frances/Franciszka, Genevieve/Genowefa, Joanna, Josephine, Julia, Clara/Klara, Constance/Konstancja, Leonora, Martha, Regina, Salomea, Sarah, Ursula/Urszula, Veronica/Weronika, and Victoria/Wiktoria.

Female Given Names

Among female names, I was unsurprised by the popularity of Mary and its variants, but I was somewhat surprised by the popularity within my family of the name Catherine, since its ranking is relatively higher than one might expect based on a comparison with U.S. data. The name was consistently found in the top 10 U.S. girls’ names here, but was never as high as #2, and the U.S. Social Security Administration’s list of the top names over the last 100 years ranks Catherine at #43. However, this list treats the names “Catherine” and “Katherine” separately, and “Katherine” came in at #41. Obviously if the two names were taken together, they would appear much higher on the list.

I admit, I was intrigued by this for personal reasons. I’ve loved the name Catherine since I was a little girl. I named almost all my dolls Catherine Elizabeth or Catherine Marie. When my husband and I were dating and beginning to talk about marriage, I told him that if ever we had a daughter, she had to be named Catherine, and that fact was pretty much non-negotiable. (He married me despite the ultimatum.)  To me, the name is elegant, musical and lovely, and apparently, many of my ancestors agreed with me. It almost makes me wonder if there’s some weird genetic predisposition for name preferences, just as there’s a gene that makes cilantro taste like soap for some people, or a gene that makes some people find broccoli to be bitter. Whether or not that’s the case, it was nice to compile the data and demonstrate to my daughter Catherine that she’s in good company. I think I simultaneously demonstrated to her that her mother is a huge geek, but I think she knew that already.

So how about you? What are the most popular given names for your ancestors? Which names were the most fascinating to discover, or most unusual? Did you name your children after any particular ancestors? Let me know in the comments! Happy researching!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?: Frequency Analyis of Ancestral Given Names in My Family Tree

  1. I SENT THIS TO A COUSIN ON MY MOM’S SIDE WHO IS INTERESTED IN GENEALOGY AND HAS DONE A LITTLE BIT – BUT IS NOW RETIRED SO MAYBE WILL HAVE MORE TIME TO DO RESEARCH NOW.  I THOUGHT THAT IT WOULD BE USEFUL BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE WHEN SEARCHING NAMES.  YOU ARE SUCH A BLESSING IN MY LIFE AND I WISH THAT I WAS YOUNGER AND MORE COMPUTER KNOWLEDGEABLE TO DO RESEARCH.  HOPE TO GET TO LEARN MORE AND AT LEAST GET MINE ‘STUFF’ IN SOME SORT OF CONDITION FOR OTHERS WHO MIGHT TAKE IT OVER.   MY DAUGHTER SHANNON WHO IS STARTING A NEW JOB ON DECEMBER 11TH [SHE IS SO EXCITED] BROUGHT ME SOME LEGAL HANGING FILE FOLDERS AND SOME PLASTIC HOLDERS TO CLIP ON THEM. WHERE SHE IS NOW WORKING – HAS THEM SITTING THERE AND PROBABLY WILL BE THROWN OUT AS THEY NO LONGER USE THEM [PAPERLESS SOCIETY] AND THEY ARE EXPENSIVE [20 FOR $25].  SO HOPE TO START THE SECOND AND THIRD DRAWERS IN MY OFFICE AND GET MORE INFO IN THEM BY PERSON/COUPLE – AND SO THE STUFF IN BAGGIES, SHELVES, BOXES, ETC. WILL HAVE A HOME. A LOT OF STUFF IS IN BAGGIES IN THE COLD ROOM AND IT HAS TO COME OUT SO NOT TO GET RUINED WITH THE COULD THAT IS COMING. THANKS FOR INCLUDING ME IN YOUR BLOGS  [IS THIS WHAT THEY CALL YOUR WRITINGS?]  THEY ARE SO ENJOYABLE.  BONNIE

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bonnie, you’re a dear, and I’m glad you’re in my life, too.♥ Thank you for keeping me updated on your family history projects and your family news. I'm honored to be your cousin, and I'm so glad you enjoy the blog posts (yes, that's what they're called). 🙂

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  2. Very interesting post. I was not aware of the “rufname”, but should have been since about half of my ancestors had names starting with Johann.

    Liked by 1 person

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