Monday, 18 February 2013

What's in a name?

I have always referred to our 4xgreat grandmother as Susannah with an "h" because that was the name under which I first encountered her when studying census returns. On the other hand, her baptismal record shows that on that day in 1816 she was recorded as Susanna.

This inevitably leads to the question (much loved by genealogists) What was her real name?

It is important to recognise that Civil Registration of births, marriages and deaths started on 1 July 1837 in England and Wales. So there is no legal basis for preferring one form over another as the official name.

We might argue that the name ordinarily used by the person is in fact her "real name" for all practical purposes and that was (unconsciously) my basis for taking the form used in the census return, but there is a difficulty.

The record of the marriage of Susannah in 1835 shows that she, her husband and her mother all "made their mark" as a form of signature. Since they were unable to write their own names, they were unlikely to be able to recognise and correct an "error" made by a literate person. Almost certainly, the records of Susanna(h)'s name were all made by others

A study of the relative frequency of the two forms in printed language suggests that the with-h variant was briefly the more popular a couple of decades before our 4xgreat grandmother's birth but has been declining ever since. Why then would educated people consistently prefer the "older" version?

I suspect that the answer lies in the role of the church. A literate man in North Wales in the mid-nineteenth century would have been very familiar with his Bible and would know of the role of Susannah (with Joanna and Mary Magdalene) in the Gospel of Luke. Anyone hearing the name would immediately bring to mind the New Testament spelling. Everyone, that is, except the Rev E Roberts on the day of the baptism. Perhaps he was one of those modern vicars.

There is one other reason for believing that Susannah's name should be spelled in that way. Although their parents were illiterate, the Davies children could read and write. Two of them (Joseph and Sarah) gave daughters the name of their grandmother. Both Susannah Davies (b 1867) and Susannah Hollingsworth (b 1876) are with-h, so I reckon that their granny was too!

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