Ryan Taylor Names can create mysteries


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By Ryan Taylor

People struggle to give their babies just the right name. In pioneer times, they were pleased to name a town after themselves (as with Streetsville) or an admired public figure (as with Regina, which is named for Queen Victoria). When a place changes its name, as Galt and Preston did, there are angry reactions.

Many people also change their names as life progresses. The anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum was born Toivele Schneebaum. An official changed him to Theodore for a time, but he preferred Tobias. His friends called him Ted.

That makes four names that a researcher might find in records, all applicable to the same man. This can be true of many people - nicknames, spelling problems, even simple mistakes can affect how names are recorded.

Nicknames, especially in the past, often bear little resemblance to the original. Perhaps the most common is Bill, for William, although Polly, for Mary, causes much confusion. Since Mary is less commonly used than in the past, and Polly has faded also, modern genealogists often make no connection between the two names.

A person's name can often identify the era when they were born, because names have fashions along with clothes and cars. There are few Berthas left, because they would be a century or more old. Women named Yvonne are in their sixties now, along with the Susans. Debbies are a decade younger.

If a woman is named Crystal, we know she was born in the 1980s, when the television soap Dynasty was popular. I have a young cousin born in 1981 whose name is Krystal Chandel. Her parents no doubt thought it a pretty combination, but her great-grandmother exclaimed, "They've named her Crystal Chandelier!"

It was only in the nineteenth century that the spelling of names became regularized. Before that, people spelled things the way they wanted, and our records reflect this. Researchers must keep an open mind on this subject.

When Ezra Eby compiled his Biographical History of Waterloo Township, he tried to avoid uncertainty by using only one spelling for the varied names-for example, he used Snyder to stand for Schneider, Snider and any other variation.

I once helped a man at the Kitchener Public Library who was looking for his grandfather, William Snider. I showed him the entry in Eby's book, but when he saw 'William Snyder' he raged, "Our family has always spelled its named Snider!" He left the library and probably never found out about his grandfather.

No family name escaped the errant spelling of the past. Geographical names also varied. Finding a place in Canada is easy. Natural Resources Canada has a website where you can ask the location of a place.

Local place names can be found using book publications, or by asking reference librarians at a local library. I have found that university map libraries, such as those at the University of Waterloo, are most helpful at finding obscure locations.

When researching your family history, ask yourself why the people and places you find were named what they are. If you were named for an uncle, or your father's best friend, make sure you record it. I have a cousin named George Rex because he was born at the time of the king's coronation in 1937.

World War I vets in Canada: Adding to my last column, I was finally able to find that there are five Canadian World War I veterans still alive, four in Canada and one in the state of Washington. All are well over a century in age. This year's Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa was the first which no World War I vet attended.

Posted November 22, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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