Those Funny Names

Barzillai, Hezekiah, Elisha, Ezekiel, Abednego, Meshach. Where did our ancestors get those names, and who were the people who used them? The answers are important to our being able to identify our ancestors. The answers are not as simple as they might seem, however.

The names are obviously Biblical names, but not just any Biblical names. They are Old Testament Biblical names. What is the significance of that? We are familiar with John, James, Matthew, Thomas—but those are New Testament names. Does the distinction mean anything? 

Names of children are frequently taken from famous people, particularly heads of state. Before 1714, only two English kings had names found in the Bible: John and James, both New Testament names. Most of the other names, including those of the commoners, originated in what is now northern Europe and Scandinavia. These included not only names like Ethelbert, but also William (Willahelm: strong helmet or leader), Henry (Heimerich: ruler of the house), Robert, and Richard — names that were used long before the time of the kings, but names that were undoubtedly given impetus by their kingly use.

In the 1600’s, about one-fourth of all English men were named John, judging from an analysis made of 11,900 given names in Surrey wills. Another fifteen percent were named Thomas. This writer collected information on 173 Inman wills and other documents from well over 100 English index books of records. The time span was roughly from 1300 to 1750, with most of the records in the 1500’s and 1600’s. The search covered the whole of England. My analysis indicated that the distribution of those Inman given names corresponded very closely with that of the Surrey wills. No Old Testament names were represented in my collection. Where were these people?

In an attempt to get a lead in the research, I broadened the search to more common surnames and consulted the International Genealogical Index, focusing on the period before 1700. I examined the surnames Smith and Jones, adding the Old Testament Biblical names to those surnames—Ezekiel Smith, for example. Without exception, the names were found in the south of England … and Wales. To rule out the possibility that the Smith and Jones families were found only in Southern England, I added the names John and Robert. As expected, men named John Smith and Robert Jones were found all over the map, from Wiltshire to Lancashire. Only those with Old Testament given names were limited to Southern England.

A closer look at the specific English shires revealed that the Old Testament names were located in two patterns—one for shires near the Bristol Channel and its Severn River extension, both on the English and Welsh sides, the other at London and shires near it. Numerous Inmans were located in those areas at that time, although my search found no Inmans with Old Testament names. The Inmans were there as a matter of record by 1300 AD, with a continuous record thereafter. Few earlier records exist, because a common written language was only evolving. (Beowulf, written in the West Saxon dialect, was composed about 1000 AD; but English evolved from Englisc, an Angle dialect. Chaucer was born about 1343, and we know what Chaucerian English is like.)

This is merely dipping one toe in the ocean tide, but it should give pause to those who have ancestors with Old Testament names. The best ports for immigration to the New World were London and Bristol—right near the homes of all those people who had the funny names that we have come to love. Perhaps that is the best place to look for them.

William C. Inman, Raleigh, NC - February 23, 2002