I have found, when researching long-dead ancestors, that sometimes the names that parents chose to give their children are the only glimpse I have into the inner life of those parents. When I look at a list of sibling names, it makes me smile to picture the parents choosing the names with the same care we took when we named our daughter. So I've often been curious which parent's tastes and preferences I'm more likely to be looking at in those names.

Among people I know, mothers tend to be the main baby namer in a family. Fathers typically have input, and sometimes they may take charge. But, more often than not, the names of babies reflect the tastes and preferences of their mother.

So my question is, how long has this been true of naming? (American naming, in the case of my ancestors.) In eighteenth or nineteenth century America, were mothers still the main baby namer? I realize, of course, that historically babies were more likely to be named after friends and family. But someone still had to be the one to say, "Hey, let's name our son after Uncle Joseph." Was that more likely to be mom or dad? Or has it varied too much over time and across cultures to say?

(I'm also asking because my 3rd-great-grandparents gave their children names like Iberi, Avoca, and Iranarch. And I'd love to know which parent's taste is reflected there!)

1 Answer 1


I don't think you can affirmatively tell who had more sway in naming children across so many different regions and cultures. However, you may be able to find the names or variants of them in family history. Of course there are common family given names, and often the given first or middle name will be a surname from the family. To the extent that the tribute names and surnames come from the maternal or paternal side, you may be able to guess who had more influence.

Edit - After doing more research on this issue and discussing it with my wife the family historian, I found more information for you. It does not suggest a husband-wife dynamic on naming, but rather a more familial or communal pattern.

Often there were family naming patterns about using the first and last names of parents and grandparents, incorporating the maiden names of direct female ancestors, etc. Here's an article on Rootsweb discussing naming patterns:

As stated above, the eldest son usually had the same name as his father, the second son, the first name of one of his uncles. (paternal usually, unless the father had no brothers, then a maternal uncle). The middle name was either his mother's maiden name, or grandmother's maiden name. Basically, as more children were born, more maiden names were used, but generally those in the direct line. Great grandmothers, great great grandmothers, etc. Interestingly, after the fifth child, there will be names of famous people. Second generation immigrants often deviated from the original family names. They often named their children after local heroes.

As an example, here's an excerpt from a family tree where the middle names came from family surnames like Congdon, Mussey, and Cathcart.

Other traditions are less creative. Some Italian towns, for example, will have an enormous number of children who are named for the town's patron saint. In my family the (German-American) patrilineal descent line starting with my uncle has three Georges in a row preceded by three Johanns in a row - and the third Johann had a brother Johann, who had two sons named Johann.

Look at family names, time period, location, ethnic or cultural groups, local saints and heroes, etc. for particular naming patterns. But often the names had less to do with the creative expression of the parents and more to do with traditional naming sources. Anybody who does a lot of centuries-old genealogy is likely to notice heavy recycling of names.

  • Edited the above answer based on subsequent inquiry.
    – NL7
    Commented Apr 6, 2014 at 4:23

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