Common Names and Surnames: If Only Our Ancestors Had Unique Names

For many of us researching our family history, a common surname is often accompanied by a common first name which renders finding ancestors just that extra little challenging. Some cultures observed naming patterns which only perpetuated the frequency of the same name. Add in what was common back in history with large families and the challenge becomes compounded.

Yet despite this, there are some ideas and strategies that can aid in finding ancestors. In many ways it is about finding the uncommon to the common to source, differentiate and assure that the individual found is in fact the right one.


There are many different naming patterns that can be found across cultures. For example the Irish naming pattern, if adopted, would follow as such:

  • First born son named after his father’s father

  • Second born son named after his mother’s father

  • Third son named after his father

  • Fourth son named after his father’s eldest brother

  • Fifth son named after his father’s second eldest brother or mother’s eldest brother

In the same vein daughters would be named as such:

  • First born daughter named after her mother’s mother

  • Second born daughter named after her father’s mother

  • Third born daughter named after her mother

  • Fourth born daughter named after her mother’s eldest sister

  • Fifth born daughter named after her mother’s second eldest sister or father’s eldest sister

If a naming pattern can be identified this can be incredibly fruitful in building out a family tree, however a few caveats must be noted. If a child died, parents may have elected to name the next child born of the same gender the deceased child’s name. (As an example an Eamon Murphy could appear as aged 3 in the 1901 Ireland census, and potentially again in 1901 aged 3 as well. This could be a result of a naming pattern and honoring a deceased child or as an error by the census taker or informant). Additionally some families may have started with a naming pattern but then discontinued it.


Did an ancestor have a middle name? While not overly common in the past, if there was a middle name this could help further identify an ancestor - and potentially offer new research clues. For example was a middle name reflective of someone of importance to be recognized and honored? Was the middle name a maiden name or denote some other point of relevance.


One ‘formula’ that was used in many instances with common surnames was the use of nicknames. Nicknames could be derived from traits or characteristics of the individual, a location, even to a townland. Ryan, one of the top ten most common Irish surnames boasts upwards of 500 nicknames. Moreover when you visit a local area that may carry an abundance of a surname, the locals can often easily cite and identify families and areas to pursue further research.


So while the names of John Smith or Mary Murphy are as common as can be what about any traits or lifestyle aspects that are unique? A profession, a location or locations where they lived? Was there something different about their character? Could they have been on the right side or the wrong side of the law? Identifying a differentiator, could be the differentiation!


Is there an opportunity to identify neighbors, other family members (hopefully a few with uncommon names!)? Were there any incidents or events that would connect your ancestor to the area and timeframe?


There are multiple groups and organizations dedicated to one name studies. A google search can unveil what groups may be of value to your surname of focus. Furthermore, on a DNA front, there are many surname research groups that connect like surnames and DNA test results to source means to make connections and expand knowledge and information.


Take a look across different online forums that may connect you to the surname of interest. A google search where you place the surname in quotations alongside with surname groups could be an avenue to explore. For example: “Martin”+”surname groups”.


While reviewing surname distribution does not pinpoint an exact or definitive area for a specific ancestor, it can nevertheless provide perspective on where a surname held abundance and a possibility of where an unknown origin of a surname could be tied to. For many researchers while there is knowledge that there is a tie to a country or countries of origin but is accompanied by a “we don’t know from exactly where in that country”. This can draw a baseline. Then as further research is undertaken reverting back to this initial exploration can often validate that an ancestor / group of ancestors did in fact come from the same area.


Be prepared to find multiple variations to both first names and last names in your research. It is important not to discount an individual nor to adopt exact match look ups because a Carney could be spelled as Kearney, or a Smith as Smythe, an Elizabeth as Lizzie, a Ned as Edwards.

If only our ancestors named their children Bluebell, Mercedes or Eggbert with equally distinctive middle names. It would have certainly helped!

Did you have a research approach that helped you get passed a common first name or surname? Do share on here.

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Bridget Bray