The Evolution of a Name
Name spellings can change by mistake—and by design.
When the Sandham-Thistle boy marries the Hackford-MacFiddle girl, what surname will their children have? Imagine being the kid in school whose teacher tries to cram Kenneth Stewart Sandham-Thistle-Hackford-MacFiddle into the class register.
It was so much easier for the child’s grandfather, Bill Thistle, and his grandmother, Marian MacFiddle. When Kenneth grows up, chances are he’ll choose to become known as Kenneth Stewart—period.
Or consider Janina Borkowski, who has to spell her name virtually every time she meets someone new. Is it any wonder that she might change it to something simpler, such as Burke?
Sometimes other people unwittingly change a family’s name; if the sound is unfamiliar, they sometimes write down what they think they have heard.
Ultimately, many people, including my wife and I, go through life with a version of a family name that has evolved through centuries of accidental or deliberate alteration. Strictly speaking, I am a Pons married to a Hudon, yet we grew up as Punch and Beaulieu, respectively. In my case, the damage was done about 500 years ago, and in my wife’s case nearly 350 years back. (The original Hudon had a son who received land with river frontage, or the “good place”—le beaulieu. The nickname stuck and some Hudon descendants used it as their surname.)
Translations and mistranslations have created many apparently new surnames in our region. Sometimes you can follow the genealogy and name change in stages over a few generations. The Benight family of St. Margaret’s Bay, NS, has a surname you won’t find in any book about the subject of family names, because it was created in Nova Scotia, perhaps as the result of English ears getting a French word— Benoit—wrong. In 1817 there were Benewans at Tracadie, NS, and from them came a family at Wine Harbour, in Guysborough County, known in 1871 as Benewa; in 1881 as Benight; in 1891 as Benoit; in 1901 as Benight; and in 1911 again as Benoit. Census data makes clear that it’s the same family.
Here’s another one to think about. “Emanuel Figurhead” turns up in a record in 1827, and then vanishes from later population surveys. Yet, he is the ancestor of many Maritimers who may be unaware of their Portuguese descent. By looking carefully at the 1838 census of Mr. Figurhead’s community, we find that he has now become Manuel Jusey, head of a family of 10 children. Perhaps you recognize Jusey as what we spell Josey. It all becomes less of a puzzle when we discover that the man had started out as José Manoel Figueroa.
While in Prince Edward Island recently, I had reason to notice the name Wedge. A good English word for a very French family. Look that up in a French-English dictionary and you will discover that the French equivalent is “coin,” which leads us to discover that these folks are actually Aucoins. And someone writing early records in Cape Breton took their Aucoins and actually christened them with the Irish name O’Quinn!
If your name is Young, could you be the progeny of a German named Jung or a Frenchman called Le Jeune? Are your Go(u)lds translated Doirons? The Gallants were once upon a time Hachés. Haché means “cut into pieces,” so it would have started out as the name of either a butcher or one who made tools. Then, centuries later some one named Haché was nicknamed (in jealousy or scorn) the “galan” or ladies’ man, and the nickname was used so often that it replaced the original family name in that branch of the family.
Some of us may have encountered people named Greek. Their ancestor was from Crete, hence Greek, but in some early records they were called Levant, a western European term for anyone from the eastern Mediterranean. It is a sort of translation, not unlike Koch to Cook, or Bubikopfer to Publicover.
Genealogists have to be wary. We never know when the name we have been chasing switched tracks, and we’ve been riding the wrong train for several generations.
Dr. Terrence M. Punch is the author of Some Early Scots in Maritime Canada (Genealogical Publishing Company 2011) and the four-volume series Erin’s Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008-10).