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The Origins of Family Names

Trying to find an ancestor based on their last name can often be a challenge. Through various generations, names often change.


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Most people today call them "last" names. Others call them "family" names or "surnames." Whatever you call them, trying to find an ancestor based on their last name can often be a challenge. Through various generations, names often change. Sometimes, a family name will change because of a different pronunciation, resulting in a different phonetic spelling. Some names have been Americanized. And some complicated names have been shortened to make them easier to pronounce. So how did family names originate?

Most surnames have been around for centuries. Until sometime in the late Middle Ages, people didn't have family names, and when they began using them, only the head of the family had such a name. Spouses and children had prefixes or suffixes added to the father's name to show they belonged together. These are patronymics.

Surnames based on the father's name have been commonly used in Europe. And while a family name may be based on a mother's name, this is less common and occurs only when a single mother has a child or when she has a child after the death of her husband. To simply form a patronymic, a person takes the father's name and adds it to the end of their own–for instance, Henry Michael. or by adding an "s"to the end of the father's name to make it Henry Michaels. Most patronymics show the relationship of a child to his or her father. Many cultures add a possessive suffix to the father's name, such as -son in English-speaking countries, -szen in the Netherlands, -sen or -zoon in Scandinavia, -ez in Portugal and Spain, and -ov or -ev in Slavic cultures. Irish surnames often begin with "O," which stands for grandson of while Scottish surnames beginning with "Mac" which means son. Only in Russia do people use suffixes for both son (-ov) and daughter (-ovna).

Some family names derive from geographic location or feature associated with an individual. These names can be either based on a specific town or village or be based on a topographic feature such as a river or brook. You'll find the surnames based on place names the easiest to figure out. For example, John Chester, meaning John of Chester. When people first began to use surnames, they only used place-based names when in a different town. Family names can also end in burg, berg, borg or ville, ton, field, fort, caster, thorpe, by, dorf, hoff, dam, gracht, veld, stead, stadt, or stad. In some foreign languages, you'll find place-based names preceded by a word meaning of, at or from, such as d', de, de la, de las, della, del, des, di, du, da, van, vande, van der, and von.

Topographic-based family names may point to a geographic feature near where your ancestor was born, lived, or worked. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to identify the location from which the name derived since different languages used different words for the same topographical feature. Take the surname Bradford, for example. It most likely evolved from Broad Ford, implying that a person with that name lived near the crossing of a wide river. Family names such as Green, Hill, Marsh, Wood, and Stone are also associated with topographical features. And like patronymics, these names often originated by adding suffixes like wald, mund, mont, gart, stone, caster, head, dale, wick and well. Claymont, meaning "mountain of clay," is a good example.

Occupational Names

The easiest family names to figure out are those based on a person's occupation. While some occupations, such as Miller, are obvious, others such as Kellogg, a person who butchers hogs, aren't. A person who made bows and arrows might bear the family name of Bowers today.

Many of the occupations on which early names originated no longer exist, such as Purcell, a seller of pork. And like topographical-based names, different languages use different words for the same occupation. (For more information on occupational names, see my previous column, "Centuries-old Occupational Origins of Modern Surnames," Dec. 2009)


People use nicknames for a variety of reasons but mostly to shorten a name they dislike or as a way to shorten it. In the past, they also used nicknames to comment about another person's appearance or character, such as Joseph Bear, implying that he was hairy like one. Often a person's nose was a point of ridicule, so to describe him, Frenchmen might use Courtney for "short nose," or Beckett for "little beak," or in Gaelic, Cameron for "crooked nose." Nicknames may also refer to relationships (Cousin), tools (Hammer), weapons (Spear), birds (Eagle), animals (Wolf), or plants (Rose). Names such as these are the, by far, the hardest to decipher.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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