“A rose by any other name” is a great Shakespearean quote but when you are dealing with ancestors a rose by any other name will drive you crazy. Nicknames are variations of a name that can be used interchangeably with the given name. For example John, may be Jack or Johnny. Richard can be Rich, Rick, Rickie, Richie, Dick, Dickie and in old England, Dickon. It’s bad enough when the first names can be shorten and changed in ways that you aren’t expecting but when the last names are changed into nicknames you are going to have to be an informed genealogist.
There are several nationalities where the habit of nicknames is particularly prevalent. One of this is French Canadian. In French Canadian genealogy we have something called a “Dit” name. The word dit means to say but in this usage it means called by. There are many reasons why this happened. It might be that there was more than one family with the same last name in the area. More common even is that two sons in the same family choose a different last name. One name may be the original and the other may be the city or area of origin, sometimes it is descriptive as in the case of my German ancestor Johan Becker who ended up being called Jean Baker Blondin, no doubt referring to his blond hair.
There are literally hundreds of names that also have “dit names”. For a complete list or as complete as possible you will need to consult Jette and Tanguay. The American French Canadian Genealogy Society has a dit name index on their website that will be of some assistance.
If that wasn’t complicated enough, in French Canadian Genealogy the first names are not always as expected. In the early days, all the names will be a saints names. So if you are looking for an ancestor who you think is Baptist it will be Jean Baptiste but not all Jeans are Jean Baptiste. If it is Xavier it will be Francois Xavier for St Francis Xavier. Many, many babies were baptized with the names Marie and Joseph in front of their given name. This was common even into the 1920′s. This leads to families with seven Josephs and five Maries. Another very prevalent habit is naming the child after their godparent which leads to families with three Pierres or Elizabeths. Trying to figure out which one is yours can be a very big challenge.
In Sweden, where the naming pattern involves using the father’s name so that William who is the son of John becomes William Johnson, the Swedish army at some point in the 19th century decided that they could not deal with all the Petersons and Johnsons and started picking names for the men. Thus if you have a Swedish name that isn’t one of the names that ends with son, it has most likely been changed.
When doing genealogy, nicknames can be a big stumbling block. When looking for ancestors in the records, keep an open mind and always write down anyone that is found in the right place at the right time even if you can’t place them in your family at this time. Somewhere down the road, you may find that this is a nickname that you were unaware of. A genealogist needs to keep an open mind and think outside of the box. Never assume anything, let the records speak to you. It also helps to familiarize yourself with the time period that you are working in. Many nicknames are or were common to a particular era, such as the above mentioned Dickon.
Armed with knowledge and an open mind, you will be prepared to tackle the challenge that nicknames offer.