Opinion

What’s in a (given) name?

When you’re working with early town records you’ll often encounter pages of family histories where the parents and children are listed with birth dates. The trouble with these records is that they don’t indicate the gender of the children. It’s often challenging to identity the gender based solely on the given name. Then as now given names can be confusing. 

Take Marion, spelled with either an A or an O. Either can be male or female. Other puzzlers include Beverly, Shirley, Glen, Winnifred, Vivian and Carroll, among many others. I even ran into an Amy who was male and a man whose middle name was June. I suspect you have others you could name. 

Today’s names can be equally puzzling. For example Taylor, Dakota, Stacy, Rene, Jordan and Dana all are found, used for either gender. The late Larry King’s widow is named Shawn, which used to be strictly a man’s name. In recent generations all the rules have been shattered, which can make it tricky and may cause genealogists of the future to scratch their heads. 

Even businesses have had to deal with how to address a person whose name could be either gender. Instead of using Mr. or Mrs. in the greeting in a letter they now use the full name “Dear Shirley Smith,” for example. It’s better to do that then offend someone or guess their gender and get it wrong. Many people with ambiguous given names take great offense if you address them incorrectly, so the business world simply uses the full name.

Most genealogical software programs allow you to list the sex of an individual as “Unknown.” That’s a good choice if you can’t be sure of the sex of a child. How can you find out which is which? Census records from 1850 on indicate name and gender. Marriage records usually make it clear whom is the groom. Cemetery records can help if they have a stone that says “son” or “daughter”. 

Today’s world is complex as new categories beyond male and female have emerged just in the last decades. Our descendants will probably become accustomed to this and accept the situation as normal. But for many of us it’s difficult. I for one have problems referring to an individual human being as “they” which to me is a plural pronoun. Also, there are terms that make me flinch as we were taught not to call another by those names. They were considered bad, bullying, and insulting but are now being used to identify classes of people. 

Old dogs and genealogists have to learn new tricks and I’m sure we’ll move with the times, though I confess to avoiding the use of what I consider derogatory terms. Call me old-fashioned but I just won’t. I just wonder what the genealogical software designers are going to do to adapt to the rapidly changing times and how many gender options will need to be included in their future updates. We’ll see.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com. 

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