[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 22 May 2017.]
I recently traveled to Michigan to watch my cousin, Scott, graduate from Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) with a law degree. And like any good family member/genealogist, while I sat with my family waiting for the commencement to commence, I examined the program for Scott’s name. After a few moments, I located my cousin’s first and middle name: Scott Harrison. Excited, I asked my aunt and uncle whether Harrison was a family name. “Nope,” my uncle explained, “when your aunt was eight months pregnant, we got the name Harrison from a billboard that we passed while driving home. It sounded presidential, so we went with it.” Now, because my family is beyond sarcastic, I didn’t believe them at first; however, after a few minutes of my uncle insisting this was the case, I relented – I guess they got the name from a billboard.
Interestingly, the comment created quite the discussion, with many of our family and friends chatting about the origin of their first and middle names:
* Me, Lindsay Elizabeth: My first name was chosen because of my mother’s affinity for Scottish names and my middle name is in honor of my mother’s college roommate, who died before she was 25 years old.
* My mother, Mary: Named after her mother, her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother (and so on). This may lead you to ask, “Lindsay, why aren’t you named Mary?” Don’t even get me started. 🙂
* My cousin, Alexandra: Named after her mother, Sandra, as Alexandra is a feminine variant of the name Sandra.
* My brother, Andrew Dale: Named after the popular Prince Andrew, who married Sarah, Duchess of York, in the same year my brother was born. (My parents also wanted all three of their children to have Scottish names.) His middle name is in honor of my great-uncle Dale, who died when he was twenty-one years old (see my blog post for more on Dale).
* My aunt, Laura Agnes: Named after her maternal grandmother, Nora Agnes, who never went by Nora and only Agnes. I actually knew her as Nana Agnes.
My family’s enthusiasm for sharing their first/middle name origins reminded me of an ice-breaker that I used while working at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts. The premise was simple: I asked the children (typically in fifth grade) if they knew for whom they were named. This would often spark a rousing discussion about their parents’ love of Rock n’ Roll (one young girl was named Starr), Disney (we had an Aurora and a Briar Rose), and their family history (many children were named after their grandparents).
The best part was that the children were really into it – they loved talking about their names, as well as their ancestors. It was a great introduction to genealogy, because it was the first time that the children thought about their name as a part of a larger story. And whether that story is about getting a name from a billboard or one that was passed down through the generations, it is an important question to ask your parents: How did you choose my name?