Researching surname origins, and the effort required to trace back even the most common surname, is quite a daunting task. Yet many genealogists have the expectation that the research has already been completed, while others believe there must be a simple formula. As complicated as it is to locate the true origin of a surname, knowing what country you should be tracing for your family surnames is an essential element of research.
For thousands of years first (or given) names were the only designations people needed, as the world was much less crowded and every one knew their neighbors. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish individuals who lived relatively close to each other and possessed the same name.
While there are several different versions of when surnames were first given, it is generally agreed by most that the birth of the surname can be attributed to the Normans [the race, not the family]. In fact, the Domesday Book of 1086 (referred to in America as the Doomsday Book) was commissioned for the purpose of designating property ownership, thereby formalizing taxation, and is a fascinating study of early 11th century life and family heritage.
Shortly thereafter, surnames established themselves as part of the bearer's individuality; and as they were passed down from generation to generation, they became the symbol of a whole family and all that it stood for. As surnames were added to baptismal (or given) names, they began to make ones' identity more specific and helped distinguish family relationships.
Most surnames can be traced back to one of five groups: (1) formed from the given name of the sire (common in English-speaking countries); (2) arising from physical characteristics or dispositions; (3) derived from locality or place of residence; (4) derived from occupation (crafts and trades common during medieval times); or (5) invented for their pleasing sound, as a nickname, or simply out of necessity.
Over time, some countries developed specific rules, publishing "Naming Systems" for use in developing surnames. These systems, for example, promoted the use of suffixes like I, II, or III, which when used, the eldest son's name could be the same as that of the father. The Normans also introduced the Sr. and Jr. suffixes to distinguish father and son.
Regionally there are commonalties among the way heritable surnames were derived. The English terminated names with "son", "ing", and "kin", which are comparable to names prefixed with the Gaelic "Mac", the Norman "Fitz", the Irish "0", and the Welsh "ap". There are also German, Netherlands, Scandinavian, and other European surnames of similar formation, such as the Scandinavian names ending in "sen". In the Slavic countries, the "sky" and "ski" played the same role.
The Italians used a variety of prefixes for their naming practices. The prefix "di" (meaning "of") was often attached to an otherwise ordinary Christian name to form a patronym; "da" and "di" (meaning "from") often associated a place of origin; and "la" and "lo" (meaning "the") often derived from nicknames.
While these are examples of a structured approach to naming descendants, all too often other circumstances existed and our ancestors opted for (or were forced into) an alternate approach.
It is important to keep an open mind when trying to determine a surname's origin for genealogical purposes. Specific individuals may have not known (or cared) about naming customs of their times. Or, in a variety of instances, they may have voluntarily (or not) accepted a change in their surname imposed by another party.
Surnames that seem to defy classification or explanation may be merely a corruption of ancient forms that have become disguised often beyond recognition. This may have resulted from ignorance of spelling, variations in pronunciation, or merely from personal preference. Some families even came to America without a fixed surname; and emigrants from continental Europe frequently translated or otherwise modified their names upon arrival.
If an eldest son assumed the given name of his father for a surname, as was the tradition in certain cultures, he would be designated as such in legal records. On his father's death, however, the son might revert back to his father's surname for the purpose of inheritance. It is possible to have multiple documents with the same name, but actually be different individuals.
Similarly, the terms "Senior" and "Junior" following a name did not necessarily imply a father and son relationship. It could have been an uncle and nephew who had the same name and lived near each other; a grandfather and a grandchild living together; or even two unrelated individuals with the same name but of different ages who lived near each other. In these cases, the suffix merely meant the older and the younger respectively.
Fascination with surname origins is common among genealogists. Conversely, how to make the best use of that information is quite subjective. As with anything you discover while researching your roots, use the origin of your surname as a source of clues for where to look and what to be looking for. If your surname is based on a location, find out more about that place; an occupation, learn what those skills entailed (during the respective time period); an ancestor, see if you can trace the pattern, or physical attributes, look at old photos and see if anyone fits the description.
Browse through our collection of books and web site links pertaining to the origins of surnames from various countries. Additional countries will be added in the future.
Our Name in History is a series of unique paperback books of fascinating facts, statistics and commentary, each following a specific family name as far back in history as possible. More details...