11 Sources for Researching Your Ancestor’s Name

I don’t know about you, but my ancestors had some unusual names. Certainly many I would never wish on my future descendants! In addition to laughing about them, it can be helpful to understand where the name came from. Understanding a name’s origin might provide insight about unknown heritage, supply additional variants to search or simply explain the parents’ choice of name. Here are some websites I have found useful in researching names from my family tree.

Given Names

  1. Behindthename.com I used this website long before I began doing genealogy. I have always been interested in names, their history, significance and cultural implications. While not exactly a wiki, BTN relies on user submissions to maintain its content, so take the information with a grain of salt. You can also browse and search by many criteria as well as view name trends over time.
  2. Blue Letter Bible If you think your ancestor had a name of Biblical origin, this searchable index of many Bible translations can help you locate the passages where the name is mentioned. The context might have influenced the choice of name.
  3. Medieval Names Archive Wondering if a name dates back to the Middle Ages? Here is the place to find an index to the earliest appearance of Medieval names. And if your name turns out not to be from the period, there is a section explaining names commonly mistaken for Medieval names.
  4. A Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources Another great place to find early instances of European names. Unlike the site listed above, this one is still being updated on a quarterly basis.
  5. Pronounce Names This is a fantastic source for understanding how a name was pronounced. This can assist in finding alternate and erroneous spellings that cause records to elude you!



  1. Behind the Surname A sister site to the given name site mentioned above, this is a great place to find mostly crowd-sourced information about a surname, related surnames, origins and famous people with the surname. There are also many search options.
  2. Wikipedia: Surnames by Country Many countries have or used to have naming patterns that modern Americans and Europeans might be unfamiliar with. This gives a complete list of the traditional naming patterns in many world countries.
  3. Guild of One Name Studies Hosts research projects that revolve around individual surnames. Each project manager chooses the scope of their research but all are related to a particular name. You can find information about a particular project, contact the manager, and possibly search their records online for some studies.
  4. Surname Distribution Maps While there are several places to obtain these, the Family Search Wiki provides a list of surname distribution maps for various countries around the world, including Forebears, a worldwide resource.
  5. Medieval Bynames: Two great sources can help. A Brief Introduction to Medieval Bynames gives an overview of types of names to look for. A Survey of English Bynames: Occupational Bynames is almost an encyclopedia of occupational surname origins. Both are a wealth of information if you have a surname of Medieval English origins.
  6. Naming Conventions of Spanish-Speaking Cultures This is a thorough guide to naming conventions in Hispanic cultures. If you are new to the naming patterns, it’s a  great primer!

What wild names have you come across in your tree so far? Where do they come from? Share with us in the comments!

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