Name game: What’s in a name?

August 13, 2004, Friday

Name game: What’s in a name?

by Pam Hagen

FAMILY AND FRIENDS are well aware of my addiction to family research,
so the topic inevitably comes up at social gatherings. One frequent
topic of conversation is the origin of their last name, or surname.

Many people know the origin of their surname. If you are lucky, your
surname reveals important information about your immigrant ancestors,
such as their ethnicity (Gonzales), country or area of origin
(England, Hill), occupation (Shoemaker, Carpenter), even personality
characteristics (Stern) or a physical description (Short). If you are
not so lucky and have a very ethnic name, the real challenge may be
sorting out the many possible spellings and which one was the

What’s in a name? More specifically, what’s in your name?

Surnames were first used between the 12th and 16th centuries in
Europe. In the past 600 years, many names have changed, some a little
and others radically. Is a BIRD by any other name still a BIRD?
Perhaps not.

Some American BIRDs may have started as FOGEL (German for “bird”) or
L’OISEAU (French for “bird”) before immigrating to English-speaking
countries where their surnames were eventually translated. Some
FOGELs became VOGELs along the way. Then there are the BIRD, BYRD,
BIRT, BORDT and, of course, the LOISEAU and FOGEL families who never
changed their names. Does that make Larry Bird, former Boston Celtic,
Larry Loiseau? Probably not.

A side note about the capitalization of SURNAMES: Genealogists do
this to prevent confusion of the first name with the last name.
Consider “Henry James.” If we didn’t know better, this could be a
first and middle name and no surname. Or perhaps someone omitted a
comma, so it should read “Henry, James.” To make it clear to future
researchers (and ourselves), we write Henry JAMES. Writing last names
in all capital letters also makes surnames easier to find when
scanning a family tree or genealogical history.

You may already know the ethnicity of your surname but not the exact
country. What appears to be a German name may have its origins
outside of modern-day Germany. For example, my dear mother-in-law
Weiss insisted her parents immigrated from somewhere in Germany.
After I located her father’s immigration and naturalization papers, I
had to break the news to her that her parents were, in fact, German
Lutherans who lived outside Warsaw, Poland. For almost 80 years,
because of faulty oral family tradition, she believed her parents
immigrated from Germany. It’s been 15 years, and she still doesn’t
believe they were Polish!

Tracing the original spelling of some ethnic names can be a real
challenge. Some of our European ancestors had names difficult to
understand and even more difficult to spell. Many could not speak
English and some were illiterate, making it impossible for them to
communicate the correct spelling of their surname to English-speaking
listeners. Many names were immediately misspelled and forever changed
by English-speaking record keepers. One of our family names is
PFERSCHING. The oddest spelling I have found is FOERSING, and the
most familiar is PERSHING. But they are all the same family. Never
discredit a spelling just because it isn’t the way the name is
spelled today.

Sometimes the immigrant Anglicized the spelling himself after too
many frustrating experiences. For example, SCHMITT became SMITH. And
finally, some immigrants completely changed their name. I had a
first-generation American-born Armenian friend in college by the name
of MILLER. MILLER? That’s an Armenian name? She patiently explained
that her name translated from Armenian into English meant “miller.”
Pity her future family historian!

Soundex is helpful in figuring out these misspellings. Soundex is a
system that drops out the vowels in a surname and uses only the
consonants, grouping together consonants that are often confused with
each other.

Many database search engines use this system, including the Social
Security Death Index. I would never have found my husband’s
PFERSCHING ancestor in the census index if it weren’t for Soundex,
which came up with FOERSING.

Pamela Hagen is a research assistant at the Lancaster County
Historical Society. Send your questions about how to trace your
family’s history to “It’s All Relative,” Lancaster County Historical
Society, 230 N. President Ave., Lancaster, PA 17603. The columnists
will not be able to answer each letter personally. Process-related
questions will be answered in a future column. For additional
information on genealogy or the historical society’s research
services, consult their Web site at