Posted by: downtothesea | December 31, 2008

The power of a nickname.

Yesterday I thought I would spend a few free hours tracking my elusive gg-grandmother Elizabeth Aitken (Hislop) Miller through the 1851-1871 census collection for Edinburgh, Scotland.

I used’s UK census collection for my “grunt work” and then viewed the images (for a per-image fee) at Scotland’s People.

Lo and behold, the reason I couldn’t find her in 1871, the year leading up to her marriage to George Miller, my gg-grandfather, was because she was listed in the census as “Bessie” Hislop!  This is the one and only time I have ever encountered her nickname (which clearly must have been important enough to give to a census-taker).

Bessie!  Suddenly my gg-grandmother has become a “real” person to me–a young person, too!  My grandmother recalled Elizabeth, who was her grandmother, as a (stereo)typical dour Scot;  Grandma once told me that she’d “never seen that woman smile, probably because she had seven children.”  But there’s something lighthearted and fresh about the nickname “Bessie,” and it speaks to a time in Elizabeth’s life that my grandmother of course never knew: before Elizabeth’s marriage, before the births of her children, before the immigration to Canada and to Niagara Falls, New York.

I wonder if Elizabeth’s husband George called her Bessie?  They were married in June 1872 and their first child, John, was born in December of the same year.  The census that reveals her nickname was taken only a year before.  I’m a hopeless romantic and I admit I want to believe George called her by her nickname.

Huh.  Bessie.  One little detail in a 137-year old census.  Let’s see where this delightful new tidbit of information takes me…



  1. I’m new to the blogging world but not new to genealogy. I’ve enjoyed your posts as I’ve been reading through them today. I remember several years ago I had been searching for my great great grandmother. I had no idea who she was at all but I was determined to find out. I can remember sitting in the local historical library looking at the microfilm when I found her. Rhoda! I stared at her name, whispered it, then said it out loud several times. I felt so overwhelmed that tears developed. Since that time, I’ve found a portrait of her and letters that my great grandfather wrote and referenced her. I can certainly share in your delight in learning a name.

    • Oh gosh, I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets misty at the discovery of “lost” ancestors. It can be overwhelming; I completely agree. I live for those moments, though! Thanks a million for reading and commenting, kbea!

  2. You’re absolutely right about the power of the nickname. It came as such a shock to me, going over some death certificates, to find that great-great uncle Caswell was called Cass and that Disa/Dicey Carolina Boone, the first wife of my great-grandfather, was called “Liney” (I though Dicey was her nickname!). That’s really when the personality comes through.

    Great post!

  3. I think part of my fascination with nicknames is that I have personal nicknames for all of my friends and family–I very rarely call someone close to me by their given name! None of my long-suffering friends have complained, bless them, because I think they recognize nicknames to me really are terms of deep endearment.

    Thanks a million for your comment, Greta!

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