The power of names: picturing the past

Naming my ancestors; wordle of all the christian names from my family tree.

Naming my ancestors; a word cloud of all the christian names from my family tree.

Once I started thinking about the importance of names as a link to the past (On names as an echo of a long-distant past), I wondered what my family naming pattern would look like. Word clouds are a great tool for this, displaying representing the frequency of any word by size. I used Wordle to generate this picture of the christian names in my family.

The thing that struck me – apart from the high frequency of a small number of names  (which I knew anecdotally anyway) was that although these names were common in Scotland, they are not really Scots names. Apart from a few Andrews and a Donald, most of these names could easily have come from south of the Border. I guess what that tells me is that my ancestors -at least as far as I’ve been able to trace them – are lowland Scots, whose links to England, France and the Low Countries were probably stronger than those to their highland countrymen and women.


14 thoughts on “The power of names: picturing the past

    • It’s a neat tool. I use the advanced version where you can specify the frequency of each word rather than having to insert loads of text and let wordle count them.

  1. This is a neat post!! Very interesting stuff! I wish they had one for Japanese first names. 😦 But seriously, it would be meaningless. Is “Su” short for something, BTW?

    • Thank you. Why wouldn’t it work for Japanese names; I’m curious. Su is short for Susan. I never added an e on the end cos it seemed pointless taking three letters out and adding a new one back in! 🙂

      • Can’t argue with that logic! But seriously, I doubt such a program can be developed for Japanese because names are written in Chinese characters…and 2 or 3 would be strung together to make a name. However, depending on the parent, those two characters can be pronounced in different ways – each with differing meanings.

        • Interesting! I guess if names are not an historical artifact of families’ identity, it wouldn’t make sense to create a word cloud for them. It’s fascinating to learn a bit about how other cultural practices operate in such apparently basic things as naming. Thanks!

    • 🙂 It’s a great tool. I have a bit of an obsession with infographics these days because I think people respond so much more to visual information.

    • Hi Amy; thanks. Yes, it was fairly laborious because I had to manually count the first names. Much easier with surnames could I could index on them. Luckily I come from Scotland where the same names were repeated over and over. I could have simplified it by putting all the versions of a name together (e.g. Janet/Jessie/Jenet; Ann/Anne, etc, but decided to leave the different versions in). If you can export your tree in such a way as to only keep the names, Wordle will do the counting from text, but I couldn’t do that.

      • Yikes! That sounds like a lot of work. I think Family Tree Maker might generate a list of ALL the names and I could cut and paste, but I am not sure. Thanks!

      • Hi Amy; I’m sure most programs should generate a list. It was a timely reminder that I need to get my act together with some decent software soon!

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