November 4, 2008

How To Build A Better Surname

I have many names. By that I mean that I have more than just a first, middle and last name. While my last name is Baker, I am the result of many families with very different surnames through the ages.

When meeting someone for the first time, I sometimes break the ice by asking about their surname, especially if theirs is unusual or one that appears in my family tree. Many people might not know much about their name, only speculations. Like the rest of my family, I’ve assumed that my surname “Baker” probably dates back to some ancestor in England who probably was a baker. Recent discoveries, however, suggest that my paternal line may have actually come from Germany and thus “Baker” may have evolved from “Becker.”

A good genealogist trick I’ve learned when searching records is to try misspellings of names. Education hasn’t always been as prevalent as it is today plus words and language evolve just like anything else. My paternal grandmother was a Hammons. The Hammons line has been traced back to the sixteenth century and has gone thru several changes in that time…
So, when searching that branch of my tree, I must try several different spellings. But changes like this aren’t always intentional. Often, illiteracy plays a role in shaping our onomastic heritage.
Don’t be offended if your ancestors seem uneducated. Depending on the record you’re looking at, it was likely the fault of the individual writing that record such as the census taker. The same is true for first names. My great-grandfather, Moses Alexander, was called “Elek” in letters and family Bibles. No doubt, this was the result of siblings mispronouncing “Alex” as children. Nonetheless, it stuck and appears on census and other records today as “Elek.”

Some cultures form a compound surname from the names of two married individuals. For example, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his wife merged their names, Villar and Raigosa, into one name when they got married. This may seem romantic and, on the surface, ideal for genealogical purposes. But what happens in just one generation? If Villaraigosa’s son gets married and does the same thing, it could create a long and confusing name. One might suppose creating a centaur name, creating a new name from parts of two names, might be the next logical step. Villaraigosa might become Villaraiwitz. I don’t think this would be any less confusing.

While one of my main genealogical goals has been to trace my paternal line, following the Baker name back through history, I continue to be fascinated and thankful at the diversity of different names and families that converged to make up…me.

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