People can have many different names over time. Examine the example of a woman who immigrated to the US from an Eastern European country. She could have three names over time:

  • Katerina Jurkiewicz (Birth Name)
  • Katherine Yurkiewicz (Name used in the US)
  • Katherine Davis (Married Name)

The list gets longer when we consider spelling variants and possible legal name changes.

Most, if not all, genealogy software have a concept of a "primary name" that is used for display purposes. Which name should I choose as the primary name?

I tend to chose the birth name, but even then I may not have a birth record for them. For people born in the US, I have plenty of spelling variants from censuses but I rarely find a birth record.

  • 1
    Hey there Justin. Your Q has only been posted an hour; it is the 10th return when I use G to search "Genealogy 'primary name'" (without the application of the outside quotes).
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 12, 2012 at 16:09
  • Looks like this is one of those questions where the answer is "do the way that works best for you." I'm surprised there's no established standard.
    – user47
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 18:37
  • In part that might be the application of the term "primary name." BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (2000), p. 97, opens the biography with the "subject's full birth name." Nicknames and alias are then also given there; but "not married surnames."
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 20:33

9 Answers 9


In some cases, the notion of the primary name is inadequate to describe the historical situation. For example, in 19th century Eastern Europe, Jews might have had a given Jewish name, a given Russian or Polish name, a patronymic (likely based on the Russian name of the father), and a last name. Russian names would have been used in records dealing with the State, whereas Jewish names might have appeared in synagogue and community records and on tombstones.

Names were also changed during immigration, and both names need to be documented. I have a funny case of two brothers, Avrahm and Avish in the Ukraine. When they emigrated to Chicago, Avish became Abe and Avrahm became Henry, even though Avram and Abe are closely related semantically! (Avrahm is a transliteration from Russian of a name that in English is Abraham.)

In France, people also may have a set of given names, each used in a different context.

It would be great if genealogical software recognized these fundamentally different names for the same person (in contrast to the spelling variants of the same name, e.g. Mollie vs. Molly, Abe vs. Abraham, etc.)

  • 1
    +6 It will be a great day when genealogical information standards recognize "these fundamentally different names for the same person."
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 12, 2012 at 16:02

Undoubtedly, the birth name - it is the only one that cannot change ;-)

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    "The only one that cannot change": Not strictly true, if you're dealing with patronymics, or an adoption situation.
    – user104
    Commented Oct 12, 2012 at 15:24
  • 1
    But in that case, the Birth Name is still unchanged...
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 12, 2012 at 20:59
  • Perhaps not, if there's an unambiguous birthname. But if the child is baptised as Mary daughter of Thomas Evan, her birth name might be Mary Thomas or Mary Evan.
    – user104
    Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 8:13
  • In Germany we have the concept of a "family name", that is the legal name of every member of the family formed by a married couple and all their common children, even if those children were born before the marriage. So those children could well be born with the name of the mother but are upon marriage (if the family name is the name of the father) ex tunc named after the father and have legally never been named otherwise. Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 7:46

There are many reasons for having multiple names recorded:

  • married/maiden name
  • legal name change
  • nickname or informal alias
  • petname or hypocorism
  • professional or stage name
  • general alias, pseudonym, also-known-as, nom de plume, pen name, or nom de guerre
  • public/private name (as with Native American tribes)

Some of these will be dependent upon the date. Some will have spelling variations, spellings in different languages, or simply different styles (as in formal/informal).

However, the original question was about the selection of a 'primary name' rather than support for multiple, time-dependent names. I use the term 'title' rather than 'primary name' in my own data since - in principle at least - it doesn't have to correspond to a personal name at all.

I use the birth name as the title unless there is some special consideration for that person. This title (used for display purposes) might also be annotated if there are several people in the same family with identical names. For instance, "Fred Bloggs (1879)".


Even among users of what some describe as advanced software features, there are debates about just what the "primary name" should mean and whether it should be fixed.

Naming conventions have cultural associations; there is always an interest to have your information well understood by others.

Reading scholarly journals is very helpful when it comes to the process of how to record the primary name.

I used to always use the birth name as the primary name. Not so now, though. Except for married names, if the person was known most of their life by a certain name, I now use that as the primary name. If Izikofaolisky Napolearnities Jessicatolmipliso was known most of their life as Izicoff Simpson, then Izicoff .. is my primary name.

Part of the reason for my change in thinking was questioning what a birth name really is. I don't have "birth records" for most of my 17th, 18th and 19th century ancestors. Some never knew how to write themselves; some never did learn to read or write.

I will look up some remarks from a few journals and will supplement this answer with same.


Whatever choice you make, I think you should try to keep it consistent within your own records. For me, because I have so many Jewish immigrant ancestors who had and used multiple names in multiple contexts throughout their lifetimes, I personally made the choice to record people with the names that were written on their birth certificates, or else to use their Jewish/Yiddish name as their first name if no birth certificate could be found, and add their US-based/Anglicized first name(s) in quotation marks right after that, as they were acquired later in life. So the order of the given names in the full name tends to follow the progression of names as used in his or her life, even if the vast majority of my family only knew them by their later Anglicized first name.


For women, I use the birth name, as their married name can change with time, sometimes more than once.. In some circumstances -- e.g. Welsh patronymics, so can their unmarried name, which is why I use the name that was registered at birth (preferably) or baptism (if it's known or can be inferred). They may have shown a preference in later life for the first name by which they were called (e.g. Peggy instead of Margaret) in which case I'll make their primary first name Peggy but record all the other variants.

For men, I use the name they chose to use for themselves when they were able to chose -- at their marriage, census records or the birth of their children. See How do I record names involving adoptions in a family tree?

Of course, adoptions, gender changes and step-relationships add complications. And whatever you do, you should record all the name variants, the sources for them and the dates at which they were used.

  • One relative had at least four different spellings for her first name (birth certificate, census records, US SSDI, gravestone), and a nickname that everyone (family & friends) used.
  • Another relative had a hyphenated first name, which eventually was simplified to the second half, which was spelled at least three different ways in various records.
  • Another had a name on his birth certificate (First Middle1 Middle2 Last) that appears to have never been used during his later life -- he just used Middle2.

In these situations, mainly for my sanity and the utility of the display for anyone consuming my tree, I set the "preferred" name to the one that was most often used.

At any rate, I make sure to record each variant that I come across -- even trivial spelling differences like changing an e to an i or dropping a letter. (This helps with searching.) And I record the sources that provided each different name.


While I agree with the principle (given by ColeValleyGirl) that the primary name is the one that they customarily adopt (such as in registering the birth of a child), that is not always easy to determine.

I have an instance of an ancestor (of germanic origin) recorded (in a british colony) four times in fourteen months as Heinrich (marriage), John William Henry (birth of twins), Henry (death of child 1), and Henry (death of child 2).

I interpret that to mean that the official creating the record has as much influence over the name actually written down as the person named.

When I move beyond the realm of actual evidence into the role of a teller of family tales, I assume that a grieving father was afforded the courtesy of using his customary name rather than meeting bureaucratic requirements. (Just as the child born Anna Wilhelmina Carolina died 12 weeks later as simply Annie.)


I usually use as a primary name the name that is most commonly used in the records, as this is likely to make the person easier to find when searching. This is a judgement call, and if there aren't enough records to determine that, I use the name in the birth records.

The exception is if I know what they person was usually called, but that's of course limited to persons within living memory.

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