I had occasion to peruse the Dictionary of American Family Names recently. I realize that other people’s genealogy is generally boring, so I won’t provide the details, other than to say that “Wiggins” seems to be Breton in origin, way back when. In any case, I checked my other ancestral names to find that they were either Germanic or unknown. That made me feel a little special (an unusual feeling, to be sure). I may be a mutt, but I’m a mutt with mysterious background. Can you feel the mystique? The thing about our origins is that they’re irresistible. When I was still employed as an academic, one summer I was completely enthralled by the state archives in Madison and spent hours and hours researching—trying to figure out who I am retroactively.
This was before the need for horror films reasserted itself. I was living the dream, employed in the profession for which I’d trained. Or at least close enough. At Nashotah House there was no real measure of academic productivity. I was publishing at least an article a year and I had the draft of my second book written. But who was it that had written that book? What did I know about that person and where he’d come from? My family names, at least until I get back to the inevitable Smith, are all pretty distinctive. As a child “Wiggins” was a rare name, but it is the most common one from among my grandparents. Perhaps all this Teutonic weight helps to explain my endless pondering. Perhaps not.
Origins have always fascinated me. The other day I was glancing over all the books on Darwin and Genesis that I had collected and read in those Nashotah House days. Those were for the book that had never gotten written. And names (and their origins) are all about identity. Other people we meet want to know what we’re called. Surnames, especially, convey quite a bit of information about us. They might locate us geographically or ethnically. It’s really a wonder that they’re not protected information. Indeed, if you reveal too much genealogy online someone might be able to answer one of your security questions! I suppose that’s another reason to keep your ancestry to yourself. We do, however, take some of our cues for our identity from our names. Family names aren’t generally chosen, except in cases of name changes. And those can be tricky for those seeking to learn who they are. Who am I? It depends on when you ask me.