In researching your family tree, you’ll come across an exorbitant amount of people by the names of Joao, Francisco, Manuel, Maria, Isabella, Alexandrina, Jacinto, Jacinta, Antonio, and Jose. It seems that every Portuguese family expecting a child referred to the same, very short baby name book. That why nicknames are so important to our research! Nicknames help us identify people when they are one of twenty with the same name in the family.
Nicknames Helped Them Keep Everyone Straight
It must have been very confusing living in the small communities of the Azores and Madeira or on the Hawaiian Plantations with everyone having the same names. It would be easy to imagine a Portuguese mother calling her son, Jose, for dinner–and 14 Jose’s would arrive at the door. Each figuring they just got an invitation to a free meal!
TIP: ALCUNHA IS THE PORTUGUESE WORD FOR NICKNAME
How in the world did they keep them all straight? The answer may be a simple one: nicknames (alcunha is the Portuguese word for nickname). Nicknames were mostly fun and games. They were creative and imaginative usually referring to an embarrassing moment or unsightly physical feature (many beyond the normal “shorty” or “stretch” that we come up with).
These monikers add a charming touch to family history. However, they may also have been a necessity in the days of common given names. I would imagine that people were referred to more by their nickname than their given name, just for clarity. The confusion must have been great especially in large families. I know in my Pacheco research, many of my Grandfather’s cousins had the same given name. He was just one of about 8 Joao (John) Pacheco’s floating around at the turn of the century.
Nicknames Help Us Keep Our Ancestors Straight
Bless our ancestors for picking these nicknames! You may know your ancestors name, birthdate, and birthplace. However, learning his or her nickname can give you a little insight into their character, likes, missteps, or who they admired For instance, the name Theodoro Pacheco doesn’t say much, but his nickname “Kid Cyclone” says alot! I imagine ol’ Kid Cyclone must have been a terror growing up. You don’t earn a nickname like that for nothing!
How about “Johnny Sailor”. Don’t make the mistake I did! He was never a sailor. He wore a sailor hat everywhere he went–even as an adult!
There are those nicknames that are derived from a person’s given name. These nicknames are also known as pet names. Some may still be found today while others reflect the era from which they came.
Such pet names are: Daisy for Theresa, Joe for Jose, Manny or Mack for Manuel, Lucy for Luiza, Bella for Isabelle, Pete for Apolniaro and Pedro, Minnie for Guilhermina and Wilhelmina (and any of the “mina” ending female names), Jesse for Jacintho and Jacinta, Jane for Joaquina, and Ida for Adelaida. Those are just a couple of examples of the pet names used by the Portuguese at the turn of the century.
Nicknames as Clues to Occupations
Nicknames can tell you funny things about your ancestors, but they can also be informative. They may provide clues to the work your ancestor did. Moleiro is a perfectly good surname but it may also mean the person was a miller.
It can be confusing determining if you’ve got a surname, nickname, or occupation. When researching Portuguese language records, look for punctuation. Pacheco, Sapateiro is clearly a surname and an occupation (shoemaker). Pacheco Moleiro might be a surname with an alcunha added.
TIP: OCCUPATIONS CAN BECOME NICKNAMES AND THEN BECOME SURNAMES
Check records over time. If a person first appears as Pacheco, then Pacheco Moleiro, keep an eye out to see if the record keeper messed up or if it sets a pattern. If you start to see the person’s children or grandchildren appearing in records as Pacheco Moleiro, then you know that the family adopted a nickname that became their surname.
Nicknames as a Surname
The above example shows that you have to be watchful. Nicknames did not only replace given names, they modified surnames. One of my Mello families added Castanho to their surname ca. 1830. It is unclear why the family did this. No one had the Castanho surname in this family or in the village of Maia for that matter. There were, however, several different Mello families. Perhaps there was a need for a unique name. Castanho means “chestnut”. My kin had chestnut complexions or great chestnut trees.
You will see these nicknames added to surnames in Portuguese records quite a bit. They began official surnames and the family was known by them. It is entirely possible that a family that starts out as Mello, adopts an alcunha Castanho and uses Mello Castanho, might decades later only be known as Castanho. Keep on your toes! Our Portuguese ancestors love to challenge us with their name changing.
Write Down All Those Nicknames!
Don’t discount those nicknames when you hear them. Make sure you write them down! Not only will you learn something about your ancestors, you will also gain a valuable key to use when researching. They are invaluable when interviewing older family members.
Stop me if you’ve ever have had this interview experience:
Interviewer “Who was this Joe Pacheco?”
Interviewee “He was my father’s cousin”
Interviewer “The one who married Ida or the one who married Minnie?”
Interviewer “I don’t know the one who married Maria. I think the one who was Maria’s brother. He married Virginia, I thought. No wait, that was the other Frank. This Frank had a really nice car.”
Inteviewer “I thought Maria’s brother married Lydia.”
Interviewee “No, Lydia married John, but I don’t think his name was really Johnny Secondhand. This Joe was called “Joe Fat”, but he wasn’t fat at all!
And, around and around it goes. If I started this conversation by saying “Do you remember Joe Pacheco, the one they called Joe Fat?”, things would have moved along a lot quicker.
Remember that when people share their memories they might be reaching back 40 or 50 years. This same person who can’t keep the Joes straight may very well remember Joe Fat or Johnny Secondhand.
The nicknames may release a whole slew of memories. If the interviewer can find anyway to trigger their relatives memory, they have done their job! So, next time someone says “Well, we always called him “Kid Cyclone” make a note of it and remember to ask why! You’ll probably learn alot more than if you stuck to their given names.
Nicknames are an important tool for genealogist. Don’t disregard them because they may be the only thing that helps keep people straight.
© 2002-2016 Melody Lassalle
upd 15 Sep 2016