What’s with those first and middle names?

If you spend any time at all with the old records from a village like Wunderthausen, you will notice a couple of things:

  • A large majority of people had a rather small set of personal names
  • They were quite often not known by their first names

My old joke was that they were so poor they didn’t have enough names to go around, but there is real explanation for this phenomenon. As a rule, a baby was named for his/her same-sex godparent. Over the generations, this meant that the same names (first & middle) were reproduced over and over.

Most–but not all–children had a first and middle name, but it was extremely common that they were known by their middle name. My g-g-grandfather was christened Johann Ludwig Riedesel but most knew him as just Ludwig. The first name was very often a saint’s name (a holdover from before the Reformation perhaps): Maria, Elisabeth, Anna, Johann, Georg. But they were called by their middle names. The German word is Rufname, literally “call name.” A family could well have sons named Johann Georg, Johann Friedrich, and Johann Jost–none of them known as Johann but rather Georg, Friedrich and Jost.

If they wanted to call a son after Saint John, they would simply name him Johannes with no middle name. Conversely, a boy would not be christened Johannes Something but just Johann Something.

Other useful notes from Wunderthausen and Wittgenstein:

  • While a hard “C” is not used in standard German in favor of “K”, a name such as Catherine was often spelled with an initial “C.”
  • Curt and Conrad were basically interchangeable; neither was used much in Wunderthausen but those names are known elsewhere in Wittgenstein
  • Hearing a name like Catherine or Wilhelmine you might think the last letter was an “a” insofar as the final “e” is actually pronounced. I’ve seen local records spelled that way on occasion but you should assume that “Catherine” is actually correct (as opposed to Catherina).
  • An ancestor known as Mina or Minnie was almost certainly christened “Wilhelmine.”
  • Lena was a nickname for Magdalena.
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