County of Brant Public Library Digital Collections
What's in a Name? by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times
Robertson, Mel, Author
Media Type
Item Type
From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article "What's in a Mame?". The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.
Date of Original
February 27, 1991
Local identifier
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.0834 Longitude: -80.49968
Provided by Liz Brown
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Protected by copyright: Uses other than research or private study require the permission of the rightsholder(s). Responsibility for obtaining permissions and for any use rests exclusively with the user.
Copyright Date
Copyright Holder
The Burford Times
Recommended Citation
Robertson, Mel. (1991, Feb. 27). What's in a name?. Burford, Ontario: The Burford Times.
County of Brant Public Library
WWW address
Agency street/mail address
County of Brant Public Library (Paris Branch)
12 William Street
Paris, ON
N3L 1K7 | @brantlibrary
Full Text



In Shakespeare's play "Romeo & Juliet" the heroine asks "What's in a name?" and answers her own question by saying, "A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet." We all have names, our pets and domestic animals have names, our boats have names, some of our houses and cars have names and even toys such as the sled "Rosebud" in "Citizen Kane" have names. To reverse the well-known phrase, "You've got it. We name it."

Names are used to identify people and to describe them. For example King Richard I was called "The Lion-Hearted", "Jude" was called "Obscure", Czar Ivan was called "The Terrible", and let us hope that the Russian Empress Catherine was given the name "Great" by her love Potemkin. Other historic figures have been called "The Peacemaker", "The Fat", "The Scourge of God", "The Bald" and "The Destroyer of Private Ease". We don't know if these people liked their nick-names but one cannot help but think that anyone described as "Great" (like Wow) must have considered it a real compliment.

In the past thirty years I have helped many people find records of their ancestors and in the process have noted many changes in the names given to children.

In pioneer days people had little access to newspapers and magazines and, of course, there was no radio or TV to provide parents with the names of TV stars, pop singers,or soap opera personalities. Few homes possessed books from which to choose names. However, every home had a family Bible and it was from this source that many names were chosen. Thus many girls were named Mary, Rebecca, Ruth, Naomi, Elizabeth and even Tamar. Boys were christened Jacob, Jonathan, Moses, Ephraim, Joseph, Matthew, John, David and Peter. These are all good names that survive today. However, among the Biblical names there are a couple of strange things. For example, whereas the name "Adam" appears frequently as a boy's name, "Eve" is seldom seen as a girl's name. Also strange is the quite frequent use of the name "Magdalene" (I have one in my family tree). This name does not seem to have great popularity in the Bible.

Pioneers with a classical education frequently named their children "Minerva", "Diana", "Jason" and "Hector". Some went so far as to name a little girl "Cassandra", thus burdening the kid with the affliction that no one would pay any attention to anything she said. Fortunately, such classical names as "Ajax", "Cyclops", "Appollo" and "Hercules" have been generally limited to ballistic missiles and multi-corporations. Local records from Victorian times show that many children were given names that lonoured British political, literary or military figures. Examples are "Gladstone" for the Prime Minister, "Scott" for Sir Walter Scott the novelist, "Wellington" for the Great Duke, "Albert" for the Prince Consort, "Victoria" for the Queen, "Vicerine" 'or the wife of the Viceroy of India and 'Maude" for the girl Tennyson asked to 'come into the garden". Other families have Honoured famous Americans with the names of "Chauncey" after Chauncey Depew the American statesman who was President of the New York Central RR, and "VanRensselaer" for the American statesman who surveyed the Erie Canal and founded VanRensselaer Polvtechnical Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Many boys have been given three names. Some say that this was to honour the Holy Trinity, but more prosaic people contend that it was just a way to remember the many uncles of the multi-child families of the time. This latter was the reason I have three names. Since I had eight uncles it is fortunate that my parents chose to remember only three of them.

A very attractive part of old records is the names that have a Quaker derivation such as "Faith", "Hope", "Charity", "Honour", "Truth" (they were usually named "Trudy"), "Constant" and "Benevolence" - all good names that sometimes are given today.

In the "Hippy" days of the 1960s when people rebelled against society, some people sought to give children names that would reflect their concept of "social freedom". One such name was "Chastity" (which did not). An acquaintance of mine who is a latter-day "Hippy" gave one of his sons a nine word name describing a geographical feature. This is a pretty description, but let us hope that the poor kid will not have to sign his full name too often or that his friends will call him "Stinky" or some name that slips easily off the tongue. Looking back to the 1960s one has to wonder if any poor "Hippy" tykes were named "Intolerance", "Incontinence" or "Flatulence".

Many people have disliked the names they were given and I seem to come from such a family. My grandmother Woodin was christened "Emma Isadora" but changed it to plain "Emily." My mother's given names were "Laura Amelia" but she preferred "Dolly". I have always disliked my first name which was that of my mother's brother. My grandmother Robertson also disliked it, and being a person who never accepted anyone's opinion but her own, displayed her prejudice by always calling me "Walter", a name I had not been given. 1 have a friend who dislikes her middle name of "Phyllis". We have a standing joke of always greeting each other Avith our dislikec names when we pass on the street.

Some other names in local records have created controversy. One such is the name of "Francis" for men. This is an honourable name which has been borne by Saint Francis of Assissi, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Francis Bacon, etc. Three well-known Burford men - Dr. F. Johnston, the Rev. F. Leigh and Capt. F. Johnson - were all named "Francis" and as far as I know, didn't mind the name. However, the local editor always referred to them as "Frank". Other names that have created problems are the bisexual names of "Evelyn", "Clare", "Shirley", "Kaye", "Dana" and "Fern". There is nothing wrong with these names but they do create identity problems for people answering their letters.

At one time floral and geological names were popular and local records include "Rose", "Violet", "Ivy", "Pansy", "Myrtle", "April", "May", "June", "Ruby", "Opal", "Garnet", "Goldie", etc. the name "Azalia" appears a couple of times but did not become popular.

Among the routine names given to local children in early times are a number of unusual names such as "Welcher", "Know", "Solon", "Bugbee", "Belzebub" (try that on your melodeon), "Ziba", "Delphea", "Ruamah" and "Havilier". Some of these names may have roots in other ethnic cultures but all the local families who gave them are Anglo-Saxon. Two most unusual names appear in local records. One is "Usual", which was borne by a well-known member of a well-known Cathcart area family. The other is "Remember" for a lad from a prominent family in the Woodbury area. These names, along with the name "Know", must have been given for a reason and I would like to know why.

Names change with the times. When I was a boy in 1920s, many of my friends were named "Scott", "George", "Roy", "Morley", "Calvin", "Lome", "Russell" and "Lloyd". My sister's friends were named "Helen", "Elsie", "Grace", "Eleanor", "Edith", "Dorothy", "Beulah", and "Mildred". These are all good names that are still in use today but are seen less frequently than in the

"Brian", "Kimberley", "Jason" and "Brittany" have become popular. As the popularity of names change it is possible that such old-fashioned names as "Mary-Alice", "Amelia", "Cecil" and "Wilbur" may return. The creation of "Family Trees" has become very popular in recent years and I have always been happy to help local people who recognize my limitations. However, the tracing of ancestors has a number of problems. One of the main problems is the fact that many pioneers were illiterate and signed birth, marriage and death certificates with an "X". Being illiterate in pioneer days was no disgrace as schools were few and far apart. Moreover, education was hampered by the policy of the Family Compact Compact Government which endorsed Gov. Simcoe's belief that the children of the so-called "upper class" should receive education free whereas the children of the other "classes" should pay for it. Illiteracy caused some strange documentation as the clergymen or other officials, who were keeping the records, put down the names in the way they were spoken. Thus people with "Me" or "Mac" or names like Johnston, Johnson, Robinson and Robertson could be confused. First names also took a beating with "Margaret", for example, being spelled "Margarate", "Mergit", etc., and "Anne" being entered as "An".

Most of my dealings with strangers seeking ancestral information have been good but there have been continuing exceptions. For example, a remarkable number of strangers have come with the idea that I have never thought of anyone but their great-uncle Fred. These people become visibly annoyed when I tell them that I will look up the information and send it to them. Also annoying are the people who expect me to drop everything and give them hours of free research trying to prove that they are of United Empire Loyalist descent. I have nothing against the UEL and I daresay that the part of my mother's family that came from New York State in pioneer days was of that category. However, I must admit

when such people become too demanding and arrogant I get quiet pleasure if I find hat one of their forebears was among the many local people charged with treason after the Patriotic Rising of 1837.1 always tell them that they should be proud of this act but most are devastated to hear it. Another annoyance has been a self-described "historian" from a town near Toronto who deluged me with demands written on dirty sheets of paper torn from a scribbler demanding that I give him the listory of every old house in the Township, -le said (Har Har!) that he was writing a >ook. I ignored these demands for longer than I should have but eventually wrote and old him, in no uncertain terms, that he didn't know how much research he was demanding. I told him to take his scribbler and shove it... in his waste basket. I doubt f his so-called "book" ever got beyond the torn scribbler stage, but then you never can tell about the Canada Council!

A much more interesting person was a man from California who came to see me a 'ew years ago. He asked me if I knew where a certain well-known Burford man lived. I suspected his motives but he went to his car and produced a loose-leaf binder in which re had recorded dozens of people bearing :he Burford name. He said that he was a retired RR man and a widower with time on his hands. His hobby was tracing people who bore his own name. Since he seemed sincere, and since I am related to the family he sought, I gave him the address. The Burford man told me later that he had spent a very interesting afternoon with this man who proved to be a distant cousin.

Other inquiring stranger have had to be treated with caution and recent experiences with people of this sort prompted my letter to the "Times". These are people who pretend to be interested in local history but who obviously have other motives. For example, one man, after a brief inquiry about ocal history, asked me where "old people" ived. He pretended to be a Maritimer but my wife, who is a Maritimer, soon proved ^that he was a phoney. I put him out and gave the police his car number. A more recent-case was a bright young man with a briefcase about a foot thick. He pretended to be interested in local history but soon gave the impression that he was interested in something else. I suspect now that he was a bill collector or a divorce lawyer who was after other information. He got none from me or From other Burford people he tried to quiz.

The giving of names is an endless thing but an article about them must have an end. Since it began with a quotation I suppose that it should end with one. The Oxford Book of Quotations lists about 200 quotations containing the word "Name". None seems to be appropriate so I will end with the most inappropriate - my own name.

- Mel Robertson

P.S. - Don't ask me the surnames of any of the first names mentioned in this article. I respect the privacy of the families concerned.

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What's in a Name? by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times

From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article "What's in a Mame?". The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.