What’s in a (First) Name?

I’ve been going through old photo albums and, as a result, thinking about family and family names.

When I was a little girl, I used to imagine what I would name a future daughter. For a long time my choice was Elizabeth, but then I saw the movie “Portrait of Jennie” starring Jennifer Jones and that clinched it. My daughter was going to be called Jennifer. And when I did give my new baby girl that name in 1974, I thought it was so original and unusual. Cue the laughter.


I’ve had this clipping since 1980! Note the stunned teacher’s name.

It turned out I gave Jen the most popular girl’s name of the 70s. “27 Jennifers” indeed!

Here’s a fun link to see the popularity of names over the decades. I popped over to the 1950s and scrolling down the list of names, I see most of my girlfriends and both of my sisters. Yup, there’s Carol, Diane, Mary, Suzanne, Dorothy, Jean, Patricia. We can strive to keep current with fashion and hairstyles, but there’s nothing like an out-of-date first name to plop us right down into the decade of our birth.

It’s a pretty safe bet there aren’t too many Carols and Pats being enrolled in kindergarten nowadays. Emily, Madison, and Hannah are more like it.

This WordItOut app creates word clouds and this one shows the names most commonly given in my family. Here are the first and middle names of three generations of my family (mine and my siblings, our parents, and maternal/paternal grandparents.)


Three generations of family first names on both the German and American sides.

I am Barbara Helen, named after each of my grandmothers. My sister, Suzanne, has a middle name of Martina after my mother’s maiden name of Martin, but her first name was a new one to the family. And little sister, Mary Christine, is named for an aunt and our mother respectively. Is there any rhyme or reason to your name? Did your parents get creative and introduce a new name or are you named for an ancestor?

My husband is a “third.” If he were a Southern boy, he’d be called “Trey” for sure.  Instead he was always called “little Roger” which is funny when you consider all 6’3″ of him.

How about your family? Are there names which run through the generations? Did you give your children family names?

The new baby boy who has just been born in my neighbor’s family has a big name for such a little guy: Rollyson James. It’s an old family name and I think it’s nice those names from far back on the family tree are being resurrected.

Going back three generations to my Grandmother Helen’s family is a good example of how some names fade into obscurity. Here she is with her eight sisters (side note: finally a boy was born after all those girls….good grief, would they just have kept going?)


And their names are as vintage as the photograph:

Rear (L-R) Gladys, Mable, Ethel, Alice, Blanche, Doris

Front (L-R) Laura, Stanley, Myrtle (the mother), Shirley, Stansfield, Helen

Names carry such association, don’t they? I remember years ago when I was selling real estate in Massachusetts, my broker slamming the phone down after getting yet another phone call from the school about her son. And she exclaimed “Why did I ever name him Kevin? Every Kevin I’ve ever known was a brat!” She was a retired schoolteacher and had opinions about names. I have to say that I’ve found myself not exactly warming up to someone at first because their name was that of an arch-nemesis and the opposite holds true, too. Every Dorothy I’ve ever known is nice! Of course I am sure I am completely alone in carrying name associations this far!

There is the theory of “nominative determinism.”In other words, Dr. Hart, the cardiologist, was never going to be a optometrist. And the Romans had the expression nomen est omen, or “name is destiny.” My name derives from the Greek “barbaros” meaning “foreigner” or “barbarian.” Hmmmm, I was always the new girl in school but I’m not that foreign. 

How about you? Tell me about your name.

And as always, thanks for reading,

The Barbaric Foreigner




About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. And the odd thought or two.
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38 Responses to What’s in a (First) Name?

  1. carolwallace says:

    Actually what catches my eye is that every single one of those sisters is a beauty! Not that I’m surprised, of course!


  2. Parnassus says:

    Hello Barbara, In Taiwan, English names are very popular. There are plenty of Davids and Jennifers, but many names seem to come from outdated name books, such as Orville, or entirely from left field, such as Wedge. In addition, there is no understanding of nicknames, so there is difficulty in conveying the relationship between Dave and David, and forget explaining Peggy-Margaret, or William-Bill.


    • Hello Jim. Oh, I feel for the poor guy who selected Orville (maybe in honor of the Wright brother?) and I can’t begin to fathom where Wedge came from. Our friend, Leonard, in Taiwan gave himself that name because he was born in July and liked the link to the lion. His wife gave herself Jennifer because her Chinese name “Ai-Chen” sounded la bit like “Jen.” I, too, find the choices the Taiwanese make fascinating. –Barbara


  3. Barbara–Thankfully, I was born 2nd– Cynthia ( popular in 1961!) Jane (after my mother,who was named after my grandmother’s sister who died young, who was named after her grandmother). My sister, on the other hand, was 1st born and bestowed with “Ruth Lucille”–named after my dad’s sister who died, but “Ruth” runs in my family, with my grandmother named Ruth (on my mother’s side). My great-grandFATHER (father’s side) from Holland was also Ruth–a male name in Holland–that is how my dad’s sister actually got the name! My sister wears it well—I’m happy to be “Cindy”!!


    • Oh wow, Cindy, how interesting. Yes, I would imagine a “Ruth Lucille” to be rather elderly, right? And, of course, your sister is not! Evidently Jane goes way, way back in your family tree. And my father’s family as well came from Holland and settled in Minnesota. And Ruth being a male name in Holland is also new info to me. Fascinating that Ruth resides on both sides of your family. Thanks for reading and commenting, Cindy Jane!


  4. Diane Ahlberg says:

    I came home from the hospital without a name they just couldn’t decide( imagine) trying to decide between Alexandria or Diane – obviously Diane was chosen with my mothers first name Olga as my middle name- try going through school with that! Now more self assured I would have not taken such offense to it. My husband is a 3 rd also and we named our son the 4th- I said I would do it if Sr, Jr and III were all still alive when our son was born hence WalterEric IV was born.
    Now Cortney was suggested by a friend I immediately loved it- she now has 3 friends named Cortney ( but with a u – took the u out with the thought that when she was learning to write and spell her name it would be easier – I have lived to regret that decision as everyone puts the u in it). This is also a male or female name and her middle name is Ann
    Both my sisters have Ann as middle names after my mothers mother and my brother is a Jr
    Every other names we came up with reminded us of some schoolmate that was a jerk or too out there that our children would be teased at school.


    • How did I not know your middle name is Olga? That is such a great nod to your Russian heritage!! I can’t imagine you being an Alexandria although that is rather Romanov family-sounding, come to think of it. Cortney’s name brings up the pros and cons of having a name spelled a bit differently, doesn’t it? How does she feel about it? My maiden name was Lennard pronounced Leonard. I spent my childhood correcting the automatic “Leo” version of the name. And how does Eriv IV feel about being the fourth? Do you think he will add a “fifth” to the line?


      • Diane Ahlberg says:

        As for my mom”s name I am old enough to appreciate it but I not only dealt with that and was much taller than any of my classmates-and Russian Orthodox- all things I now covet but stood out for what I thought was for all the wrong reasons
        Eric is very proud of his name and all that came before him- He would have a Fifth but not sure how my daughter- in- law feels so he would then choose Coles as at least a middle name as a nod to his father”s mother – he loves history and the Coles played such an important part of the beginning of Richmond
        As for Cortney she thanks me every time her name is misspelled NOT
        When we wander old gravestones she looks at the names and will probably pick from some if her favorites..


      • I swear the trauma of being a head taller than everybody else is post-worthy in and of itself! I get that you love your “Olga” now, as I do my “Helen” which I thought just awful when I was a kid. “Coles”. I think that would be terrific!!!


  5. As first born, I was named after my parents, Al and Joan, hence Alison Joan (a/k/a Al’s son). When my poor sister was born, my parents wanted her to share my initials, and she got Arlene Janet. Not too many Arlene’s around, so for good or bad everyone always knows who she is.


  6. dorannrule says:

    This is a great analysis of the evolution of family names! My parents wanted to name me Stephanie but then my initials would have been SAD. So it was Dorothy instead (which I think means “gift of God.” Hopefully he wasn’t serious – God that is.


    • Isn’t funny the decisions parents make which lead to our names? Do you think you would have been different as a Stephanie? And I am predisposed to like all Dorothys, FYI! It’s one of those names!!!!


      • dorannrule says:

        Actually I do think I would have been different as a Stephanie. I think of that name representing a more self assured, competitive woman. Thanks for making me think about this and I’m delighted you are predisposed to like all Dorothys!


  7. dorothy says:

    Well, in my parts of rural Southside VA most girls are called by both names..I.e. Dorothy Jane. “Dorothy ” SENDS UP A SMOKE SIGNAL right away of being old. .some of my college buddies call me D.J.or Deje. That tricks people who don’t know me to think I’m not in my rocking chair yet. It’s fun tricking people about your age isn’t it. SO maybe now I’ll go back to college days and do a name change; how ever, I can’t erase the wrinkles so I would need to bring out the vintage year of the veil..better than botox,don’t you think?..
    Then again does a name really matter. It’s all about what you do in life to make one proud of their name. I hope I have made a difference for someone…be it DOROTHY, DOROTHY JANE, D.J. OR DEJE.


    • Smoke signal! I’m laughing. Dorothy Jane, you are a one in a million no matter your name. Now what about your sister’s name, Arnette? Do you think she likes having such an unusual name?


  8. Sue Mayo says:

    I have so many names, I don’t know where to begin. I was given the name May Bell Johnson [ after my father’s little sister, May Bell. She died at age 4. She was named after my father’s mother Ida Bell. Ida Bell was born in the same county as Dorothy Jane. Now it gets real confusing. As a child, I was called Susie Q. Where that came from , I have no clue. All through my life I have answered to May, May Bell, Susie Q , Sue Bell [my son’s friends call me Sue Bell] and Sue. My two sisters were named after my mother Julia Elizabeth. My older sister who passed away in 1960 at age 29 was Neoma Elizabeth, Neoma was my mother’s best friend who by the way was one of the first Real Estate Brokers in Richmond. My younger sister is Julia Faye. We call her Judy.
    We all dodge the bullet of being named after my Mother’s mother. She was born on the day that General Robert E. Lee surrendered. You guessed it, her name was Surrender Lee Snelling.
    I’m happy with all my names nicknames, even the special one given to me by my friend Barb…and that would be Madam.


    • Madam! This is just a treasure trove of great names. First of all, I love Julia Elizabeth. What a lovely name. And Neoma? That’s one I’ve never heard before. And I totally understand your feeling of having dodged a bullet by not having to go through life named “Surrender!!!!” Do you know what they actually called her? This was a terrific response, Madam Sue May Bell.


  9. Sandra says:

    I think Jennifer is a lovely name; I always wanted to be called Jennifer. Sandra was such a … ‘jolly hockey-sticks’ kind of name and I hated it. I preferred my middle name, Carole (the e was very important :)) but I was stuck with Sandra. These days the names make me smile. My grand-daughters are called Taylor and Madison, but I guess I’ve got used to them now.


    • “Jolly Hockey-sticks!” Now, see, I don’t have that impression of Sandra at all. Yes, I understand the importance of the “e” in Carole. Gives it that sort of Lombard-esque glamour, doesn’t it? Oh, you may like this: somewhere I read that Jennifer is actually derived from “Guinevere.” Who knows?

      And I think that Taylor and Madison are going to be the Ann and Susan of our time in terms of popularity.


  10. Mary Ellen Yost says:

    Very interesting reading for my first day back from vacation. Here is how I became Mary Ellen. My grandmother was very sick when my mother was pregnant for me. (I think she had her gall bladder out, but in 1952 that was major surgery.) Anyway, my mother made a Novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary and told God that she would name her first born after her if my Grandmother was spared. So, that is how I received Mary. Now the Ellen, I cannot remember where that came from. But I can say, I was never excited about my first name. In the 50’s and 60’s every girl in the parochial school was named Mary something. So, in the 8th grade, when the nun would scream Mary to yell at someone, I decided I would request to be called Mary Ellen, so I knew who she was addressing. Now, when I was five, my best friend in Rochester, NY was Melanie. I loved her name. When we played house, I would ask her if we could trade names. So, that is how my daughter Melanie received her name.

    I am surprised you did not want to be Barbie, as that was my cousins name that was born the same year I was and named Barbara. Love your blogs!!!!!!


    PS We ended up traveling 3200 miles round trip. Our plan next year is to fly to Albuquerque next year, rent a car and finish the trip to CA


    • No! I lived in terror that somebody would call me Barbie! And how true that every other girl in Catholic school was called Mary. And I have LOVED the name Melanie since reading Gone With The Wind.

      You should be writing a blog to tell us all about your adventures on Route 66.


  11. Mary says:

    My name is Mary, Marbo, Mom, Miss Mary, the 40 year old midget and for one night Veronica!
    My given name is Mary and I am Barb’s baby sister. I did not like my name when I was in middle school and asked my Mom if I could change it and she said sure you can go by Christine which is my middle name. I opted out as this wasn’t very exotic or interesting either. My husband nicknamed me Marbo when we were dating. He says it means beautiful Mary! Okay, I will take it.
    After twenty years I am still Marbo to him. Mom is the best name that anyone could ask for and my two sons grant me this pleasure every day. Miss Mary is a name my sisters call me and some friends depending on their moods. I think it refers to me as the baby of our family but I am okay with it. It makes me think of simpler times when people addressed people with a little more class.
    The 40 year old midget is my father’s attempt at humor! I am short and I guess I portrayed myself as more mature than my years as a teen so my father gave me this “awkward and now totally politically incorrect ” nickname. It didn’t really bother me but it is weird. Veronica…well that one is funny. My husband and I were out with another couple and were having a fantastic time eating and drinking when the subject of names came up. I expressed my dissatisfaction with such a plain jane name and so the other husband asked well what would you want to be called. I answered Veronica!! Dear God that booze must have been good because I don’t want to be called Veronica or my husband would be Jughead! He continued to call me Veronica for some time. What a good guy. Now I like my simple name Mary. But yet another nickname has occured “the bossy one” oh well it’s better than some.


    • Jughead is reason enough to eschew the Veronica name. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever known a Veronica, have you? Marbo is a good one – fits you. It’s good that you like Mary now – but imagine if you were like Mary Ellen who commented above and went to parochial school – you would have felt like Jen did in school. Thanks for commenting, Bossy One!


  12. I know I’m late to the party, and I don’t want to bother you with all of my untimely comments, but you write about so many things that I find fascinating that I can’t stop myself from chiming in. (I’m so happy that I’ve found your blog!!!)

    My name is January Lynn + a long and oddly spelled German last name. My mother, Paula, is a boring, conventional woman, and no one can really understand what she was thinking when she gave me such an odd name. My father’s name is Alvin Lynn, which is where I got my middle name. I grew up in a very small German farming community in Southern Missouri, and did not know for a long time that Lynn is a woman’s name in the US. Lynn is a German male name that has run in the family since before any of us moved over here. I am the oldest of 2 children, and my younger brother is named Bob (Robert Andrew). I hated my name when I was little and really wanted to be called Jan. My mother insisted that I be called by my full name. She said, “If I wanted you to be called Jan, then I would have named you Jan.” So, January it is. And now I love it! You’re right. A name does make a person. I have grown into my name. While everyone thinks my brother with the normal name is a normal person, those same people would describe me as odd. I don’t really think I would be the person I am if I was just another Rachel. (There were 5 of them in my graduating class of 32.)

    Having grown up with the challenges and joys of a unique name, I wanted to give that experience to my son. But it’s different with boys. Girls tease, boys hit. I didn’t want him to get his butt kicked at school for something he had no control over. So, instead of naming him Wolfgang, like I wanted, I named him Jerrin. A little different, but not off the wall. He’s 17 now, and I asked him what he thought of his name. He said, “It’s what people call me. Other than that, it’s just a name.” (He’s such a pain!)


    • Nice to meet you, January Lynn, and how I love your name! No, never too late to chime in and it’s great to know my posts are not mouldering away in the blog dungeon never to see the light of day again.

      I agree, being a January would make you different than being one of 5 Rachels or 27 Jennifers. My Jen went through a phase where she insisted on being called Jenna just to be different. And now you have Jnauary Jones as a name comrade.

      What did you think when Valerie Bertinelli named her son Wolfgang? It’s less likely he would get beat up with celebrity parents, I suppose.

      Thanks for reading and for your interesting and lively comments.



  13. bkpyett says:

    Names fascinate me! In fact I could go on and on. I loved your post Barbara! what a great photo too. My middle name is a family name, Knyvet, that all my siblings copped as well. Hector and Henry are male names on my mother’s side. Careers were duplicated also. Fashion does influence the choice of names, but I do like it when babies are given family names. The power is off and the candle has almost burnt out, so off to bed with me. Thanks Barbara, have enjoyed this! 🙂


  14. Pingback: Names, a continuing topic: Ready, Set, Done. | Barbara Pyett

  15. I think I narrowly escaped being called Priscilla (in the family) and my youngest brother would have been doomed if he had been born female. I have no known relatives called Hilary and there are none on that list of names for the 40s and 50s, though there were three of us at school and three in my department at university. There must have been something in 1947 – it’s too soon for Edmund Hillary.


    • A mystery! I always wonder how the children fare who are given trendy names in line with who is au courant, i.e. the little Farrahs born in the seventies. They’ve probably all had their names changed legally to Ann by now! I have always liked Hilary, one L or two.


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