What's in a (family) name?

My grandmother Sylvia Mae (Turnbull) Rohrbach.

I have always enjoyed musing on names and their origins. The dictionary we had in my childhood home had a back-of-the-book listing of “common English names.” I read it voraciously and repeatedly, making lists of potential names for my future children.

As it turned out, my husband and I chose family names for our children, so all that dictionary research was unnecessary. My daughter, Emma, was named for her great-grandmother and great-great-great-grandmother, and my son, Samuel, for my father and great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandfather. (See “The Name Game.”)

My sisters Judy and Sandy Rohrbach

A recent family funeral led to the rare reunion of all my nieces and nephews from various parts of the country. It also led to more musing on names, because there I learned of the continuation of another naming tradition in my family. My late sister, Sandra Mae, was named for her two grandmothers, Sandra Eliina Matalamäki and Sylvia Mae Turnbull. Another of my sisters chose family middle names for her children’s middle names; she chose Mae for her oldest daughter. She gave her youngest the middle name Ellen—same as another of my sisters, Judith Ellen—and that niece of mine in turn gave her daughter the middle name Mae.

I was surprised to learn that the current bearers of the middle names Ellen and Mae did not know where the name Mae originated. Now that I find myself in the position of family matriarch and keeper of stories, I was able to explain that it came from my grandmother Sylvia Mae. And, like any good genealogist who enjoys boring family with too many details, I promised to send charts showing all the relationships.

It pleases me greatly that this naming tradition continues, and I hope someday someone else in the family will be Something Mae. But now I want to find out more. Was Sylvia Mae in fact the first Mae? Her mother, Orella (Turnbull) Turnbull, has been somewhat elusive in my research, but I’ve recently begun to discover more about her. Perhaps she named her daughter after the prevailing fashion, but might she have been Orella Mae? I wonder.

Penny Stratton

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.View all posts by Penny Stratton