The earliest recorded first name was found on a clay tablet dating from around 3400 BCE. This record of a sale of barley mentioned a man called Kushim.
Though this is the oldest written record of a first name, some historians believe that people started using first names around 12,000-10,000 BCE, coinciding with the rise of farming. These farming communities started to grow, so people needed to differentiate individuals with a name.
Naming conventions are quite similar regardless of the area or country. For example, the most common naming convention in most countries is patronyms. A patronymic name is passed from the father to the child, usually as a way to prove a connection to a specific family.
Let’s look at some other common naming conventions.
Many American first names use this naming convention. For example, the name Joy could be given to a child in hopes that they would be a happy and cheerful individual.
Many other cultures use this naming convention as well, like the Romans. The Roman emperor Augustus’ name means “holy” or “consecrated”. In Asia, the Chinese name An means “peace” and “quiet”.
Using professions as a given name or a family name was common practice in Europe in the Middle Ages. The name George means “earth-worker”, likely a first name given to a child of a farmer. Many given names from occupations were originally derived from European surnames, like the names Hunter and Carpenter.
Many American first names come from locations, like the names Austin and Virginia. This naming convention was particularly popular in Europe around the Middle Ages.
The name wasn’t always derived from a town or a city but could have been taken from a landmark or a well-known area. For example, the name Blair is of Scottish origin, meaning something like “dweller on the plain”.
Before surnames became mandatory, people were often given a nickname as an additional identifier, sometimes taken from physical appearance. These names were originally second names which started being used as first names when passed down through generations.
An example of this is the name Cameron, originally meaning “crooked nose”. In northern Europe, the name Rowan could have been given to someone with red hair.
Perhaps you have the first name of one of your ancestors and some additional information, but you don’t know the surname. Here are some tips on where to start if you’re researching someone with a common first name.
Learning the meaning of the name you’re researching can be helpful and an interesting journey. You can start by asking family members, as it’s possible one of them has already researched the family or created a family tree. Other great sources to search for name meanings and origins are websites like Ancestry, Forebears, Geneanet, and FamilySearch.
Many cultures throughout history have had traditional naming conventions that were used for generations. For example, Germanic names were traditionally warlike and derived from words meaning “glory” or “strength”. The suffix -bert, meaning “bright”, was also often used. Some examples are Albert, Robert, Emma, and Mathilda.
If you only know your ancestor’s first name, start from the past and work your way forward. You can research immigration or land ownership records. Even if the person you’re researching never owned land, land records typically also mentioned the names of people who lived in the neighboring properties.
Even though your ancestor had a common first name, it’s possible their middle name was more unique, which will help you narrow down your search. Additionally, an uncommon surname can go a long way in shortening your research list.
Cluster research is a tactic used by genealogists to help trace people’s origins. It was common for families to migrate with a group of people called a cluster, which was typically made up of extended family, friends, neighbors, and business partners. So, even if you only have a common first name to go on, maybe someone in their cluster had an uncommon one.
Google can be a great tool to trace your lineage, but it can get complicated if you only have a common name to research. Luckily, there are some tricks you can use to cut down your search results and make them relevant to you. Let’s look at some examples using the very common name William Brown.
If you type the name William Brown in Google’s search bar, you will see that there are over a billion hits. This is because Google searches for William Brown, but also “William” and “Brown” separately. To avoid this, put the whole name into quotations. Additionally, many records will use the last name first, so remember to add that in your search.
Example: “William Brown”, “Brown, William”
The plus sign (with no space after) acts like the word “and”. When using the plus sign before a word, your search results will only include pages that have those words and the name you’re searching for. Useful terms to add could be a city, a year, or a profession.
Example: “William Brown”, “Brown, William” +Washington
If you don’t have additional information but many unrelated results keep popping up, you can use the minus sign (with no space after). For example, if we search for “William Brown”, “Brown, William”, we get results for William Brown the officer and the politician. However, the person we’re searching for was neither a politician nor an officer. So, we can use the minus sign to exclude those results.
Example: “William Brown”, “Brown, William” -officer -politician
Any additional information you have on your ancestor will go a long way to helping you find the specific person you’re looking for. You can add as many search terms as you like by using the plus sign. If it’s more than one word, be sure to put it in quotations. If you find that many irrelevant results are shown, exclude those specific terms by using the minus sign.
A great place to start tracing your family tree is with yourself, working your way backward. Be sure to record all information you find as it will be useful later on. You could create a simple family tree with you, your siblings, your parents, and your grandparents and work backward from there. Or you could create a more detailed one by adding nieces and nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, and extended family members.
There are many great websites and genealogy software you can use, so it all comes down to which one works best for you. Many of them offer a money-back guarantee or trial periods. Test them out and find which one you like before making a purchase.
You can create a family tree immediately by getting free downloads of a family tree template from many websites. Search around for a bit to find one you like, create one digitally, or print one out and make a book to share with your family.
You could also talk to your relatives and ask them for information about your family members. A basic family tree could include the date of birth and death and the names of spouses and children.