Any tips for finding out the meanings of out-of-the-ordinary names?
February 7, 2011 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Etymological/genealogical question--tips or tricks for finding the origin of a very elusive family name when Googlefu, Ancestryfu and all other manner of -fus fail?

Wordy MeFites, I have a conundrum--I need the hive mind for guidance.

I love doing genealogical research, and I also love discovering the origins and/or meanings of names. Here is my problem:

My brother's name (actually his middle name but it is how he is called) is very unusual, so unusual that Google is essentially no help and genealogical databases provide little. The name is "Briasson." Oddly, an Antoine Briasson was the publisher of the first French Encyclopédie, yet as a French speaker and as someone who has spent time in France, I can say that I have never heard this name in contemporary France, and when questioning veritable French people on the origin of the name they look at me and say, "Bree-ahh-sohn??! Non, je le connais pas..." as if I am speaking a foreign language (heh).

I cannot for the life of me find the origin of this name, not even the country from where it might have come. It is a family name, having been my paternal great-grandfather's middle name (born 1893 in Bedford, Indiana--I have not yet found more information about his ancestry), and the Swede in me thinks it might be Scandinavian in origin because of the double S alongside the -son ending.

Of course, I'm not asking anyone to research the name for me. But the question of my brother's "fake name" plagues me and my immediate family and I am itching to get closer to its true meaning. Do any of you have tips or tricks for getting closer to the truth, barring finding out how far back the name goes in our line? I am at a loss, and too broke to hire a professional.

I deeply appreciate any of your thoughts, even if they are just ideas!

Hopefully everyone won't run off and name their children this, because it is a very special and unusual name, notoriously mispronounced ("What was that, Brad?"), that we all hold dear in my family circle. ;)
posted by nonmerci to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Where did your parents get the name? It's a family name you mentioned in passing, but from what relative? Is that relative still alive? Do they know where it came from? Do they know who had it before them? Do you know what nationality/national origin the other relatives with the name are?
posted by unannihilated at 6:45 PM on February 7, 2011

Could it possibly be a corruption of Brisson? That seems to be a more popular French name. Still, the added vowel doesn't seem likely.

Briarson and Briarsson turn up some hits on google. "Briar" seems to come from English's germanic side, so there could be a Scandinavian cognate, but you'd have to ask a native speaker since I can't find any online.
posted by wayland at 6:53 PM on February 7, 2011

Not to be a nudge, but can't you just look up the census records for your great-grandfather? His family should be in the 1900 one, I'd think, and I believe those are all online. A lot of libraries have free access to if that's the stumbling block. It just seems like that's a far more promising line of inquiry than a bunch of Internet peeps speculating on whether the suffix is Scandanavian or not --- if you go back a generation and find you've a great great grandfather named Brian, or a great great French-Canadian grandma named Collette Marguerite Briasson, you'll have your answer for sure.
posted by Diablevert at 6:55 PM on February 7, 2011

My Google of "son of Brias" for you found one solitary link, this page, which happens to be an Irish genealogy site.
posted by No Shmoobles at 6:55 PM on February 7, 2011

No Shoombles beat me to it, sort of . . . but I wonder if this name isn't a French corruption of a Celtic (Breton) name. I found other Briassons in parts of Canada which were settled by Bretons, and there are a few hints here and there that this could be the case.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:03 PM on February 7, 2011

Response by poster: As I mentioned in the post, unannihilated, the name comes from my great-grandfather John Briasson Blackburn of Bedford, Indiana. I have not yet discovered the identities of his grandparents but from what I understand he was not particularly noble as far as birth (he married into a much better family because my great-grandmother was once-divorced) but from (I think) more rural farm-stock. It is any guess where his ancestors came from, though Blackburn has supposedly been traced back to England by other relatives of mine.

For the rest--this is great! I will sift through some of this and see what comes up. Your ideas as far as corrupted French or Irish are great, please keep them coming!
posted by nonmerci at 7:35 PM on February 7, 2011

Response by poster: Diablevert, I have done extensive research on his family. There is conflicting information as to which *state* he was born in and the people who could be of help are either dead or too old to respond to me. Believe me, I am a pretty pro-researcher and have found obscure information on all manner of my father's ancestors, but Blackburn comes up cold. I don't trust the information garnished by my father's aunts and uncles and thus try to stake my own path, but even with innumerable hours clocked and a paying Ancestry subscription (plus refined Googlefu), I have come up with nothing.

In any case, as I mentioned, I am more interested in possible origins of the name as opposed to concrete information on Blackburn and his ancestors (though of course I hope to arrive at this in time). Hence this AskMe.

It might seem like genealogical research is as simple as a census, but I can assure you it is not, particularly when you do not have the names of his parents, their assured city of habitation or their birth/death dates!
posted by nonmerci at 7:40 PM on February 7, 2011

Response by poster: Dee Xtrovert--I think that is a pretty interesting theory. It does seem to have French/Celtic elements, so perhaps the answer does lie in Breton immigrants. The names Brisson and Bresson are more common in French but, as someone mentioned above, it seems odd that the extra vowel sound would be added. Nonetheless, it could have simply elided over time. Thanks!
posted by nonmerci at 7:42 PM on February 7, 2011

Best answer: Nonmerci - if some ancestor named "Brisson" came over generations ago and gave his name - with a French or Breton accent, it's entirely possible that it just got written down as "Briasson" - a French "r" sound can do a lot of strange things to any vowel that follows in the ears of an Engllish speaker. So I wouldn't think of this in terms of actual linguistic vowel shifts, but rather the possibility that just one crazy mistake 'created' a new name.

It'd also be interesting to know where this branch of your family lived, since immigrants didn't spread out evenly by any means. (And this is true even today.) A lot of family in certain parts of New England, for instance, could give a little weight to a Breton name.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:48 PM on February 7, 2011

Best answer: There were some Briassons in Lyon in the 1700's. One of them was the échevin de Lyon from 1737 to 1758 (where échevin evidently is an old title that evidently means something like alderman). They were apparently related to publisher. This page gives some details, and there's a little more here.

(This is just by restricting google search to French, and eliminating "Paris: Briasson" to get rid of books published by Briasson in the search results.)

Not much but it might give you some leads.
posted by nangar at 7:53 PM on February 7, 2011

Response by poster: Dee -- that is a very good point. I have considered that but I suppose seeing "Briasson" written occasionally has made me cling to the belief that something about it is 'original,' which is rather unfounded and silly.

I guess the answer does sadly lie in clocking more time researching this line. From what I've seen with other parts of my father's family, a lot of families moved around from colonial times to the late-19th century for a variety of reasons, so even if John was born in Indiana it's likely his immigrant ancestors spent more time elsewhere (depending on when they immigrated). Thank you for your thoughtful replies.

In some ways I was hoping someone on here might have heard of the name!
posted by nonmerci at 7:55 PM on February 7, 2011

Best answer: If you think it might kinda-sorta-maybe be French, and the ancestor it comes from was born in Indiana in 1893, it's entirely possible that it's a Huguenot or Acadian/French-Canadian last name that got muddled up in translation at some point.

For instance if you grew up with the name Bergeron in Anglophone America, you're "Burr-jurr-onn" (like that Dancing With The Stars dude), though the French pronunciation sounds nothing like that and would be difficult for someone unfamiliar with French to even say. It's hard for me to even figure out how to transcribe in this post. Basically one long nasal lisp.

Even if you can trace a name to a Francophone community in the US, it might have a different pronunciation there than it would in France, because of dialectical differences and linguistic isolation. Bergeron in Louisiana sounds even weirder than it sounds in Paris.

Oh, and spelling changes are likely, too - so even if you figure out how a French person would say the name as spelled, it's fully possible that it's a corruption of Bisson or Basseault or Voisin really anything at all.

And of top of all that, a lot of those surnames have basically died out in France, because those families left centuries ago. It's not like if you're Swedish and your great-grandfather immigrated in 1890, and you still have cousins in Malmo with that same name.

So, yeah. America.
posted by Sara C. at 8:18 PM on February 7, 2011

Response by poster: Sara C.--lots of lines of inquiry to look into thanks to your contribution and others', and also pretty fascinating stuff. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. :)
posted by nonmerci at 9:03 PM on February 7, 2011

Mod note: few comments removed - if we can not turn this into a "firstname lastname" situation so the guy gets here via google, that would be great, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:05 PM on February 7, 2011

Response by poster: It seems my brother's name is so unusual he pops up on Google searches attached to popular social networks...please avoid posting those results, guys. Thanks!
posted by nonmerci at 9:10 PM on February 7, 2011

Best answer: Something else for you (maybe).
posted by nangar at 9:25 PM on February 7, 2011

Best answer: Since it is paternal line, your brother can take a DNA test to see if you all are related to any of the branches of Brisson that are out there. The link I have is the Bryson surname project with a link to a chart of the haplotypes compared so far here, if you want to see what the possibilities are. My particular interest is in the Quebecois Brissons (from France to Quebec in the 1600s) and I know some descendants of that branch went on to the US eventually - there are still plenty in Canada, it's not a small family. I can easily see the name being corrupted in spelling based on pronunciation. Looking through my genealogy I have found plenty of examples of spelling shifts.

Here also is a discussion on the possible origins of the name that I came across in my own research and found fascinating.
posted by flex at 10:14 PM on February 7, 2011

Start with the first Briasson in your family line. Look to his parent's genealogy, of course, but also their history. I have found unusual middle names from the late 1800s in my family were sometimes fom non-blood family members - in-law uncles, for example, friends of the family - especially a sponsor or early employer of the parent, or even neighbors. Look at the census records for the family before the birth of this child, look at the neighbors, and do extensive research on the in-laws of the previous generation. Also, the spelling could have easily have been corrupted at this point if the parents giving the name were not blood relations with the individual from whom the name was taken.
posted by hworth at 5:50 AM on February 8, 2011

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