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I learned as a child that Uncle Jim was really my father's brother James. As a beginning family historian, I discovered that my g-g-grandfather often wrote the same name as Jas.

I could learn more of these the hard way (by treating one person in my tree as two) but I will never know how much I don't know. It seems that programs like Ancestry must have an automated way to match up different names that are really the same.

I want to look for a reference work that will list the possible names that one person might go by. But I am not even sure what to call it. Some will be simple contractions, others are almost abbreviations with extra letters added, and then there are ones that seem like individual nicknames until you find that several people with the same real name share them.

So is there a standard reference that genealogists would use for this? Or is there even a term for these modified or variant given names that a librarian would recognize when I ask for help?

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    This is getting close to a "list question" that will elicit a number of equally valid recommendations as answers (as per genealogy.stackexchange.com/faq#dontask), but I suspect in practice the number of standard reference works in this space is small. – user104 Mar 4 '13 at 13:10
  • If the OP is asking for a standard reference, though, I would hope there would be one, or at least just a few (high-value) competing standards. – fbrereto Mar 5 '13 at 1:30
  • ColeValleyGirl (hoping that is the name of the person who posted this "naming" question). Many genealogy programs, including your Ancestry Member Tree, allow for a single person to have multiple names. Like your James, Jim, Jas. As the researcher, you need to look closely at the other information in your source document, to see and know that they are the same person. -- Hope that helps. Russ – Russ Worthington Mar 5 '13 at 21:56
  • @RussWorthington, the question was posted by Banquo. – user104 Mar 12 '13 at 15:50
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Two resources I use:

  • FamilySearch has a "Standard Finder" for names. I just checked and it does include "Jas" for "James". This list presumably forms the mechanism that FS uses to match up the various forms.
  • The "What's In a Name" website provides alternatives forms. It is, however, mainly directed at Scots forms. It has a list of alternatives for James, including "Jas" but I am unsure if that is in there as an abbreviation (e.g. used in documents) or a nickname short-form.

The aim of the 2nd site at Scots names illustrates some of the complexities over different names. In Scotland the forms Jean, Jane and Janet are interchangeable and I've regularly seen what is clearly the same person referred to by at least 2 if not all 3 of those forms in their life. Come south of the border into England and those 3 are distinct names - such a mix would be unheard of. Which is not to say it won't happen somewhere - maybe close to the Borders, is the obvious case but also guess what will happen if a Scots family with a Jean migrates down into England?

So - context is all and these lists can only give you potential synonyms.

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First Name Variants by Alan Bardsley (mentioned in How can I identify all the possible alternatives for a surname) is the only specialist genealogical reference work I am aware of in this space -- it covers the "English speaking world" in the 18th-19th century, plus "the commoner Welsh, Irish and Scottish links".

A librarian should be able to direct you to dictionaries of personal or first names, many of which will discuss etymologies and diminutive forms.

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I do not believe that there is a standard reference in print because the task of assembling such a work would have been enormous. There are many specialised and local publications that may be useful if your family have "always" lived in one locality and so tended to use a relatively small pool of names.

As the descendants of migrants from all corners of the world wrestle with the combination of disparate naming traditions, the amount of information that a useful reference would need to contain becomes enormous. Your inference that programs like Ancestry must have an automated way is, in fact, the key to your answer.

You should examine the Variant Names Project which is intended to meet exactly the need you have identified.

Ancestry.com and WeRelate worked together to create an advanced algorithm for determining the level of similarity between two names. That algorithm was used to create the starting point for this database. ... In addition, BehindTheName.com has donated their excellent list of given name variants.

It is still very obviously a work in progress but you may like to contribute to the "crowd sourcing" component, so that one day the reference you are seeking will be a reality.

You might also be interested in this question on Stack Overflow which deals with the technological aspects of the task and provides some interesting links in the answers.

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