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… to those terms for unmarried folks

Boy, have there been a lot of responses to Monday’s post about the terms “spinster” for a never-married woman and “bachelor” for a never married man.

Some of those responses taught The Legal Genealogist a thing or two — like the fact that the terms have continued to be used in parts of the English-speaking world right into the 21st century.

M. Lemmond noted that she was married in Jamaica in 2001 and, she said, “I was referred to as a spinster (and my husband as a bachelor) on the marriage documents.”1 And Pamela Brigham advised that “In England and Wales, ‘spinster’ and ‘bachelor’ were official terms for unmarried people on official documents until 2005” — something she learned after finding an 18-year-old “spinster” on a 1975 document she was analyzing.2

Toni reminded me that there was a time when “Mrs.” was used to describe unmarried women as well as married women3 — although the sources vary on just when it fell out of use, the term Mistress (for which Mrs. is an accepted abbreviation) applied to married and unmarried women.4

And to the lament about losing women in our family history when they marry and take on their husbands’ names, several readers, Judy Palmquist among them, reminded me that it’s not universally the case that women, on marriage, take on their husband’s names and give up their own. “Women in Quebec, Canada use their maiden name through out their life,” she wrote. “My 2nd great grandmother born in Quebec 1831 died in Minnesota 1878 was buried under her maiden name.”5

name tag

Oh, yeah… and the reason there: the law. In Quebec, Greece, the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere, women have to keep the names they were born with. In France, there’s been “a law on the books since 1789 requiring that people not use a name besides the one given on their birth certificate.” It’s custom in parts of Asia, and in Spanish-speaking countries, women generally keep their maiden names as well.6

Children in these countries may take on their father’s surnames or — delightfully for any genealogist — carry both a matronymic and a patronymic. Ana, the child of Jose Garcia and Maria Martinez, would be Ana Garcia Martinez or, more recently, Ana Martinez Garcia.7

A genealogist might not be quite as pleased by the cases where a surname might change every time a person moved — the problem we can encounter in Dutch research in the days before Civil Registration when people were named after the farm where they lived: “when the wife doesn’t have brothers to take over the farm. She then tries to find a hard-working husband to run the farm. He will usually change his name in the name of the farm.”8

And those doing Scandinavian research might be a bit nonplussed by the naming system there: “a Scandinavian’s family name was formed by taking the first name of the natural father and adding sen, son, sson, søn, datter, dotter, or dottir to it. A person named Johannes Augustsen was literally ‘Johannes, the son of August.’ Maria Pedersdatter was literally, ‘Maria, the daughter of Peder.’ Because of this system, there could be many people living in the same place at the same time with the same surnames who were completely unrelated.”9

Maybe there, it’d have been easier if they’d all stayed … well … spinsters and bachelors.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “In response…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Jan 2019 ( : accessed (date)).


  1. M. Lemmond, Comment to“Equality in terms,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 Jan 2019 ( : accessed 30 Jan 2019).
  2. Ibid., comment by Pamela Brigham.
  3. Ibid., comment by Toni.
  4. Wikipedia says it was during the 17th century that women began to be divided between the married Mrs. and unmarried Miss, see Wikipedia (, “Mrs.,” rev. 27 Oct 2018, while other sources place it later, in the 18th century or later. See Alexandra Buxton, “Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: untangling the shifting history of women’s titles,NewStatesmanAmerica, posted 12 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 30 Jan 2019.
  5. Judy Palmquist, email to The Legal Genealogist, 28 Jan 2019.
  6. Jacob Koffler, “Here Are Places Women Can’t Take Their Husband’s Name When They Get Married,”, posted 29 June 2015 ( : accessed 30 Jan 2019).
  7. Kimberly Powell, “Spanish Surnames – Meanings & Origins,”, updated 18 Apr 2018 ( : accessed 30 Jan 2019).
  8. Yvette Hoitink, “Farm Names,” Dutch Genealogy, posted 31 March 2005 ( : accessed Jan 30 2019).
  9. FamilySearch Research Wiki (, “Scandinavia Names: Patronymic Naming System,” rev. 12 Dec 2018.
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