Minneapolis City Directory, 1859-60

Choosing a Baby Name from the Family Tree

Mrs. GeneaLOGIC and I are expecting!

You know what that means. It’s time to dive into the family tree to find potential baby names.

How people choose names

Naming a child is a special event. The name we choose will shape other people’s first impressions of him or her from day one and it will affect our child’s self-identity as s/he grows up. It’s a big decision. We took it seriously with our first child, a daughter named Eliza, and we’re taking it seriously again. But how should we choose the best name?

Some people choose names that are popular at the moment. We all know the names that were popular when we went to school. Linda and Bob? 1950s. Jennifer and David? 1970s. I bet you can guess my age pretty accurately if I I tell you is that I was high school friends with triplets named Amanda, Megan, and Sara.

Other people name their children after famous or important contemporary figures. How many of you have a George Washington [Surname] or Thomas Jefferson [Surname] in your family tree? One collateral family in my tree contains sons named John Wesley Nelson, Columbus Washington Nelson, Henry Clay Nelson, George Washington Harrison Nelson, and Zachariah Winfield Santa-Anna Nelson, among others. In the last instance, the parents obviously couldn’t decide which Mexican-American War general they wanted to honor and decided to reference them all.

Zachariah Winfield Santa Anna Nelson's name cropped from his death certificate
Zachariah Winfield Santa Anna Nelson’s name cropped from his 1921 death certificate. Virginia Death Certificates, Ashby, Shenandoah County, primary registration district 851a, file 4446. From Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014 on Ancestry.com.

Many names from European cultures originally carried a literal meaning. Today, people generally don’t know the underlying meaning of most names and only go searching when expecting a baby. But even though people don’t know such meanings by heart, they still affect which names many parents choose for their children.

Biblical names like John or Elizabeth derive from Hebrew and in their original language typically spelled out the child’s relationship to God: Yochanan, “Yahveh is gracious,” or ‘Elisheva’, “My God is abundance.” Most Western versions of Hebrew names passed into common use via a Bible written in Greek or Latin, and so we have inherited Johannes (Latin from Greek) and John rather than Yochanan, and Elisabet (Greek) rather than ‘Elisheva’. For many Christians through the ages, the underlying Hebrew meaning was less important than the name’s association with important Biblical characters.

Other familiar English names originated from archaic forms of Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Italic, or Slavic languages. They likewise originally carried a literal meaning or referred to nature or divinity. Frederick, for example, derives from two Germanic components, frid “peace” and ric, “ruler.” Fiona comes from the Irish word fion, meaning “vine.” Danica was a Slavic personification of the Morning Star, Venus. And so on.

Immigrant groups from outside Europe are adding new names to America’s pool of names and meanings every day. To give just one example, a state congressional district here in Minnesota recently elected former Somali refugee Ilhan Omar as its representative. Fittingly for a politician, her given name means “to state something eloquently” in Arabic. Several names more commonly found in African-American families, such a Imani and Tariq, also derive ultimately from Arabic words and may reflect a much older link to the Muslim communities of East Africa.

For genealogists, family names are especially important. Because our family trees are bigger and we often know them by heart, we typically have more family names to choose from. We can dig deeper into the past to find the best fit. Indeed, one of my stipulations is that the names we choose must come from somewhere in our child’s direct ancestry.

Baby GeneaLOGIC's family tree
Baby GeneaLOGIC’s family tree.

Having said that, choosing a family name is just one of several important factors. There are practical things to consider like spelling in elementary school and job applications as an adult. Here are the general criteria we are using to choose names for for our children, in rough order of importance. (We never formally spelled it out like this. This is essentially a summary of many conversations over dinner and before bed.)

  1. A name we both like
  2. Goes well with our last name (probably no alliteration)
  3. From a direct ancestor (ideally a person who led an interesting or inspiring life)
  4. Sounds cute for a kid AND respectable for an adult. It has to look good on a resume.
  5. Standard spelling. Sorry to all the Jaiessuns out there, but why make a simple name more complicated?
  6. Not in the Top 10 most popular. No offense to the Lindas of the 1950s or the Liams of today, but we don’t want our child to share his or her name with half the school room. A certain degree of individuality is a good thing.
  7. Not too obscure for the United States in the 21st century. (The flip side of #6.)
  8. Ancient/original meaning is fitting and aligns with our values
  9. Initials don’t spell something unfortunate

This genealogist’s first attempt

We named our first daughter Eliza Pauline. It was important to me as a genealogist to find meaning in the names we chose from the personalities or life histories of the namesake ancestors. Ultimately, that’s why we do genealogy, isn’t it? Our ancestors don’t care whether we remember them. They’re dead. But we find meaning in their lives. They help us figure out our place in the world. They may have passed skills or personality traits down to us. They can teach us how to live (or how not to live). Choosing a name of an ancestor for a new child reflects how we, as parents, understand our heritage right now.

The name Eliza comes from my side of the family and Pauline from my wife’s. There are two Elizas in our daughter’s direct ancestry.

Eliza Nelson Carnes headstone in Swiggett Cemetery, New Salem, Pike County, Illinois.
Eliza Nelson Carnes headstone in Swiggett Cemetery, New Salem, Pike County, Illinois. Image posted on Findagrave.com by user Linda Simpson Davidson 03 Dec 2012; photograph taken May 2008.

Eliza Nelson is my 4x-great-grandmother on my dad’s old-stock American side. She was born around 1810 probably in Frederick County, Maryland. I don’t know many details of her life. In fact, I only have three primary sources that give her name: an 1831 marriage record from Harrison County, Ohio; the 1850 census from Pike County, Illinois; and her gravestone, erected presumably in 1857 when she was buried.

Eliza Kinney was born to Irish immigrants in Canada around 1845. She is my 3x-great-grandmother on my mom’s Irish side. Eliza moved many times in her life. As a girl, she traveled with her parents from Canada to Vermont and then to northern Pennsylvania. In 1864, alongside her new husband James Daly, she moved west to settle with her new family in southern Wisconsin. She left her parents and many siblings behind in Pennsylvania. Only five years later, Eliza was on the move again, this time traveling farther west to cut a new farm out of the prairie in southwestern Minnesota. By age 30, Eliza had already made five major cross-country moves—all without automobiles and mostly without trains. Later in life, Eliza’s family made a final move, another 100+ miles northwest to a farm near the South Dakota border. This Eliza is also a bit of an enigma. After her husband’s death in 1913, I can’t find her again. Her gravestone, marked “1845-1931,” is the only evidence of her whereabouts after 1913.

Though we don’t know much about the personality of either Eliza, we can still draw meaning from their stories. Both Elizas were migrants, especially Eliza Kinney. Like her namesakes, we hope our daughter Eliza goes where life takes her, or rather, takes her life where she want it to go, wherever that may be. Like her ancestors, we hope she grows up to change her own circumstances for the better.

Family photograph of Pauline Shoultz outside home, 1940s.
Family photograph of Pauline Shoultz outside home, 1940s.

Pauline Shoultz was my wife’s grandmother. We know a lot more about her personality. Even though she was an “old” grandma (she was almost 71 when my wife was born) my wife and her sister got to spend a lot of time with Pauline while they were growing up. I also got to know her a little bit before she passed away. She was a spirited if uncompromising woman of fully German descent. My wife remembered her this way. “She wasn’t like other people’s grandmas—polite, sweet. She was a spitfire with her own sense of humor. Grandma Pauline wasn’t a proper lady. She liked sports and hanging with the old guys at the coffee shop. She said a lot of really funny things, intentionally and unintentionally. At the same time, she was an emotional rock, steadfast and determined.” These qualities helped her live to be 98 years old.

When our daughter Eliza Pauline is a little older, we’ll explain to her why we chose the names we did. We’ll teach her about her ancestors. We’ll share our desire for her to grow into an adventurous, independent woman who is also kind, loving, and loyal.

Great family names . . . for someone else’s child

Yes, we like old family names. There aren’t a lot of Elizas or Paulines these days, but both names fit the resurgence of names that were popular around 1900.  Of course, not all old family names make good names in 21st century America. My wife’s 2x-great-grandmother was named Svanhilde. It’s a unique old Scandinavian name that was first documented in the 18th century in the same county in western Norway where our Svanhilde lived. (Her grandmother, born in 1775, was also named Svanhilde and may have been the first recorded bearer of the name since the Viking-age sagas.) I have teased my wife about naming our next child Svanhilde so much that she is frankly tired of the humor. (I think she’s taking our naming duty more seriously than I am.)

With Svanhilde at the head of the list, here’s a list of old family names we will not be using for our next child (but that I like to threaten to write on the birth certificate while my wife is still recovering):

Svanhilde Mathiasdatter portrait
Family photograph of Svanhilde Mathiasdatter (1841-1914), after whom we will NOT be naming our next child. (Sorry, Svanhilde. I’m sure you were a lovely lady.)


  • Svanhilde
  • Olga
  • Josephte
  • Ambjør
  • Euphroseine
  • Orlaug
  • Jacquette


  • Ladislav
  • Asbjørn
  • Ole
  • Václav
  • Mareen
  • Désiré
  • Burgess
  • Vavřinec
  • Gunnar
  • Livinus

Yes, all of these are given names in our future child’s direct ancestry. Most of them sound distinctively “ethnic” in 21st century America. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, searching the Social Security baby names lists for a few other “ethnic” names from our family tree, I discovered that more than 550 American girls were named Ingrid in 2008 and more than 650 boys were named Johan in 2016. Bridget is an evergreen name of Gaelic/Irish origin.

That said, such names do tend to raise questions about where a person is from. Svanhilde, Ambjør, Orlaug, Asbjørn, and Ole are all Norwegian in origin. (They’re “old” names in Norway now, too.) Gunnar is Swedish. Désiré and Livinus are Dutch/Flemish. Ladislav, Václav, Vavřinec, and Olga are names of some of my Czech ancestors. Josephte is a distinctively French-Canadian female name while Euphroseine is a Greek name carried by a handful of my female French-Canadian ancestors. Mareen was a French Huguenot man who settled in colonial Maryland. Burgess is an archaic given name of Scottish or English origin and the given name of Eliza Nelson’s paternal grandfather. All are interesting names for different reasons, but none fit our family in this time and this place.

So which name will we choose for baby #2? Well, you’ll have to wait for a birth announcement! We still have the boy name we chose from my wife’s first pregnancy (and we still like it). We recently agreed upon another girl name. I think we also recently agreed that, just like our first pregnancy, we won’t find out the baby’s sex until s/he is born. We like the mystery. Doing it the old fashioned way also makes naming the child a part of the birth event itself. I still remember calling Eliza by her name for the first time right after she was born. It was moment I’ll never forget.

Minneapolis City Directory, 1859-60

What’s up with “dit” names?

Anyone doing French-Canadian genealogy eventually runs across “dit” (pronounced “dee”) names. Meaning “called,”  the “dit” name functioned like an alias or a second surname. It could be used together with the regular surname or as a substitute. Sometimes the “dit” name was not necessary and was left out of certain records. Not all French-Canadian individuals or families had a “dit” name. So where did “dit” names come from? How were they chosen? A cousin of mine recently asked me me about the origin of a specific “dit” name, that of Francois Forcier dit Nadeau (1740-1800). I thought I would share my findings with all of you, since they help answer the broader questions posed above.

Francois Forcier dit Nadeau's name cropped from the parish record of his 1761 marriage.
Francois Forcier dit Nadeau’s name cropped from the parish record of his 1761 marriage to Agathe Hebert. Source: “Québec, registres paroissiaux catholiques, 1621-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G993-Z96D?cc=1321742&wc=9RLD-DPG%3A21947601%2C21947602%2C21947603 : 16 July 2014), Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska > Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska > Baptêmes, mariages, sépultures 1727-1775 > image 216 of 368; nos paroisses de Église Catholique, Quebec (Catholic Church parishes, Quebec).

In general, “dit” names became common in French Canada as a way to help distinguish different branches of the same family. The founding population of French Canada numbered only about 20,000 settled immigrants during the French period, and due to the colony’s early gender imbalance, only about half of those individuals left behind descendants. All of our French-Canadian heritage thus goes back to the same 10,000 or so founders. That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually not that many families, only a few thousand. As the years progressed, the population expanded rapidly from this small founding stock. A few of the original settlers already had 5,000 to 10,000 married descendants by the year 1800! As you can imagine, some families had dozens of people alive at the same time who shared the same handful of common given names: Joseph, Francois, Jacques, Pierre, Louis, Jean, and Jean-Baptiste; Marie, Marguerite, Magdaleine, Louise, Josephte, and Francoise. This was the case with the Forcier family.

The Forcier family in Quebec goes back to a single couple, Pierre Forcier and Marguerite Girard, who married in about 1670. Pierre and Marguerite settled on a farm in the parish of St-Francois du Lac, a few miles inland from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Trois-Rivieres. Pierre and Marguerite had four surviving children, including two sons, Joseph-Antoine and Jacques. These two men each fathered four sons of their own who left descendants. As the family grew through several generations, many younger Forciers moved into the neighboring parish of Yamaska. Within three or four generations, by the 1730s and 1740s, the Forcier families of St-Francois du Lac and Yamaska faced the dilemma of how to keep everyone straight without each person needing to recount his or her full lineage. “Dit” names were one solution.

How did a person choose a new “dit” name? In our case, why Nadeau? Historically, “dit” names had many sources. Some were nicknames given to soldiers. Some were descriptive. Jean Lehay dit Hibernois, for example, was an Irishman taken captive in upstate New York during King William’s War. After marrying and settling down in New France, he was given the “dit” name Hibernois, “the Irishman,” a name many of his descendants continued to carry. Sometimes the “dit” name derived from the mother’s family. One branch of the Petit family carried the “dit” name Gobin. The founding couple of this line was Francois Petit and Jeanne Gobin.

Francois Forcier dit Nadeau appears to have chosen (or been given) the “dit” name Nadeau in honor of Olivier-Francois Nadeau, his godfather and uncle-through-marriage. Francois Forcier was born and baptized June 13, 1740, and Francois Nadeau was listed as his godfather. Marguerite Forcier, Francois Forcier’s aunt, was his female sponsor. Two years later, on April 3, 1742, Olivier-Francois Nadeau married Marguerite Forcier.

Baptism record of Francois Forcier with Francois Nadeau's name highlighted.
Baptism record of Francois Forcier, 13 Jun 1740 at St-Michel d’Yamaska. I have highlighted the two places his parrain (godfather) Francois Nadeau is named.
Source: “Québec, registres paroissiaux catholiques, 1621-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L993-Z98D?cc=1321742&wc=9RLD-DPG%3A21947601%2C21947602%2C21947603 : 16 July 2014), Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska > Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska > Baptêmes, mariages, sépultures 1727-1775 > image 71 of 368; nos paroisses de Église Catholique, Quebec (Catholic Church parishes, Quebec).

The Forciers ended up with three distinct “dit” names: Nadeau, Gaucher, and Mette. (I haven’t researched the origins of the other two “dit” names, but gaucher means left-handed.) Most of Francois’s descendants continued to use the “dit” name Nadeau (though it’s not included on every record). The three “dit” names helped keep different branches straight. Unfortunately, as the families grew even more, even these three extra names could not  provide enough variety to sort out all the problems of identity within the Forcier families of Yamaska. Take, for example, this excellent research case in which the author tried to identify which Pierre Forcier from Yamaska was the one who ended up working for the American Fur Company in La Pointe, Wisconsin, in the 1830s.

“Dit” names in the USA

Photo or drawing of Jean Baptiste Forcier
Portrait or drawing of Jean Baptiste Forcier, cropped from image with his wife and daughter, uploaded by Ancestry.com user NettyeLaP 25 Jan 2014.

When French-Canadians emigrated to the United States, they typically stopped using a “dit” name. They almost always reverted to using just a single surname. Be aware, though, your French-Canadian immigrant ancestors might have chosen either their traditional surname or their “dit” name as their permanent surname in the United States.

Francois Forcier dit Nadeau’s grandson Jean-Baptiste Forcier dit Nadeau (pictured at right) chose to drop Nadeau in the United States. He became simply Jean Baptiste Forcier. But Olivier Pichet dit Dupre and his brothers all chose to keep the “dit” name Dupre instead of Pichet. Likewise, Joseph Petit dit Gobin became Joseph Gobin.

If you’re struggling to find the connection between your ancestor in the United States and his or her family of origin in Quebec, plug the surname you know into this search bar to find associated “dit” names. You can also review a list of name variations and “dit” names here. This might be the breakthrough you need.