Beginners in Genealogy research can be stumped when they cannot find their grandmother and grandfather in any government or parish document! Surely they had to register a marriage? or a birth? or be on a census? or a ship passenger list? You are right. Their details ought to be listed at least once or three times on a document. But they may only be listed with their “real” names. Or worse, they may be listed only with nicknames which you are now trying to remember? Since you never knew their nicknames, it is quite a challenge to find them, particularly if they had a relatively common surname. What to to? what to do!

In many families, there is someone who has done a little bit of family research in the past, and your job is to go and find that someone. Call or email or write to your various cousins or any aunts or uncles you can find, and ask. If you are a beginner in building your family tree, you will need to learn the fine art of asking for help, asking for information, asking for photographs, and more!

Was your ancestor in the British Navy? There is a long tradition of using specific nicknames for men with specific surnames. For example if your surname was Wilson, you would be called “Tug”, and if your surname was a very Irish surname, particularly Murphy, you would be “Spud”. Surname of Clarke? “Nobby”. Google “British Navy personal nicknames” or “naval sobriquets” and you should find some of these commonly used nicknames. This is why your grandfather was always called Tug and you never knew his actual name.

My family has various nicknames for the women in the family in particular, in the 1800s into the 1900s. Who on earth was “Aunt Toto”? Was that my greatgrandmother’s sister or her niece? Sigh. Very confusing to me now, when I have absolutely no one to ask and there are no photos or diaries available to try to figure out who she is. Women’s names were often shortened in various ways also. Your grandmother “Nellie” may have been named Eleanor or Ellen. Your greataunt “Gigi” may have been originally named Helga, Gina, or Georgia or Georgina. Catherine was often shortened to “Cathy” but also “Kitty”. The name Elizabeth was frequently shortened to “Beth”, “Betsy”, “Bitsy”, “Betty”, “Liz”, “Lizzie”, “Eliza” and others. My grandmother, named Marguerite, was called “Daisy” for most of her life by friends and family (a marguerite is a type of daisy). Another greatgrandfather was only referred to by his second name, even in his obituary – which confused me tremendously!

Men’s nicknames can be quite frustrating. One of my grandfathers was named William John, but he was known all his life as “Jack”. I was searching for a Bill, Billy, Will, Willy, Willem – with absolutely no luck. Who would have thought you could get Jack from that baptised name? His brother was always known as “Jim”, but his baptised name was Robert James. No wonder I was having so much difficulty in finding those ancestors and their family.

Of course, nicknames may have arisen because a younger sibling could not pronounce the name correctly, or because of some particular interest or skill someone showed as a youngster. “Sherry” could be from Cheryl or Sheryl, Sharron, Sharon – or, because as a toddler she loved a little sip of her grandmother’s sherry! Sometimes, in a school setting, nicknames can develop from friends, and stay with a person throughout their life. An old school friend, named Norah, was called “Nonie” in high school and still to this day by her family as well as friends, and she uses that name on all documents and cards except her driving licence.

How can you find the correct ancestors with their correct names, not just these nicknames? Start by asking anyone you can contact in the family who may know, or have something from an ancestor with their name on it. Perhaps a military record, or a watch with name on it, or a certificate. It is amazing what may turn up if you provide a few possible ideas of where someone’s full name may be correctly written (legal name) – a birth certificate perhaps of an uncle? Or it may be that one uncle always knew what his father’s name was (your grandfather), so the cousins also know, and can tell you immediately if you simply ask.

Keep your options open, and keep looking for possible family groupings. At times, you may believe you have the correct family because of the names and ages of the children, but the adults’ names seem off. Keep track of that family and record, because in fact that may be your ancestors’ family with nicknames instead of their legal names. Mark the paper record as a “tentative” with your reasoning, and keep searching. If they are living in the right place, at the right time, with the right children… you now have more proof that they might actually be your ancestors. Try to find at least one or two primary documents with those names to support your claim. Eventually your detective work will pay off as you work through the possibilities.

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