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Surnames: Where They Came From and What They Mean

Oh, yes, I can tell some of you are thinking there is no need to read this article. After all, your family name is Tailor and your Tailor ancestor arrived from England, ergo, the family is English. Maybe. Maybe not.


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Whether you are new to genealogical research or have been doing research on your family tree for quite some time, you are aware of the importance of surnames. But, are you aware of where those surnames originated, and do you realize how important that knowledge may be in tracking down the country of origin for a particular family line?

Oh, yes, I can tell some of you are thinking there is no need to read this article. After all, your family name is Tailor and your Tailor ancestor arrived from England, ergo, the family is English. Maybe. Maybe not. Depending on when your ancestor arrived on the North American continent, he may have been a French refugee who made his first stop in England. He may also have decided to "Anglicize" his surname to the English translation. In that case, your English ancestor named Tailor is now a French ancestor named Tailleur. As you can see, familiarization with the history of surnames may provide the clue you've been looking for to "jump the pond" to your ancestor's country of origin.

A future article will address the spelling of surnames. I've actually had a person tell me that a particular family line could not be hers because "we don't spell our name that way." It is extremely important for genealogy researchers to understand that when tracing family trees, variant spellings are the rule, not the exception.

Like the creation of the first census, the adoption of surnames was related to money. (Why are we not surprised?) Around the year 1000 A.D., Venice was the center of economy in Europe. Wherever the ships went, whatever the cargo, Venice and its merchants were involved. Those merchants, the better to keep track of people who owed them money, began adding a description to the person's name. The descriptions took the form of place names, patronymics, occupation, or nicknames.


The majority of surnames were created based on place names, followed closely by patronymics (based on the father's name). A surname of London puts your ancestor in England. It also pretty much puts that ancestor out of the royalty class. Some names came from estates, such as Somerset. Now, your ancestor may indeed be descended from nobility. On the other hand, his family may have been some of the working class in the area of Somerset. Sometimes a geographical feature of the area in which your ancestor lived led to the creation of a surname. If a parish priest or tax collector wanted to distinguish between two or more persons, say two people named Peter, he might make a notation reading: "Peter, of the parish" and "Peter, by the two rivers." Eventually, those men and/or their descendants may have become known as Peter Parish and Peter Rivers.


Surnames based on patronymics will include any surname with the suffix "son" as in Robertson, Williamson and Albertson. For example, John Albertson would translate as John, son of Albert. If your surname appears to be Irish (O'Bannon for example), the "O" stands for descendant of" so Michael O'Bannon is a descendant of Bannon.

At first glance, the information on patronymics would lead a researcher with the surname Albertson to presume (or assume) that the progenitor of their family surname was named Albert. It isn't that easy. It wasn't until 1413, some four hundred years after surnames came into use, that Henry V began a process of standardizing surnames. Prior to his actions, (based not on making things consistent, but rather to ensure the collection of taxes), an example of the hereditary line for surnames in England could have been as follows:

Albert Robertson (son of Robert); Albert's son Peter would have Peter Albertson (son of Albert); and Peter's son Robin would have been Robin Peterson (son of Peter); and George, son of Robin would have George Robinson.

In England, it wasn't until 1538, with the establishment of parish registers, that one surname began to follow a family line.


Occupational surnames are fairly self-explanatory: a blacksmith became Smith; the owner and operator of a mill became Miller; a cook became Cooke.


Nicknames are the last classification for surnames, and also the classification least often used. However, if your surname is Tallboy, Longfellow, French, Short, or Merryman, (among others), you can be pretty sure it originated as a nickname for your ancestor.


Over the years, many surnames were "Americanized," either by choice or chance. Choice could have included an effort on an immigrant's part to "fit in" in his or her new homeland. So a German man named Schmidt may have changed his name to the English version of its translation: Smith. In the same manner, a Frenchman named DuBois or a Spaniard named Silva may have changed his name to Woods. This same translation process would affect surnames that were derived from place names and occupations. The French Meunier became Miller; but so did the German Mueller. In the same way, the surname Carpenter may have begun with a French ancestor named Charpentier or a German ancestor named Schweiger.

Chance in choosing an Americanized surname could have been something as simple as an immigration officer not understanding or knowing how to spell a particular surname--although this did not happen as often as family oral tradition may indicate.

The main lesson here is not to assume an English surname equals an English ancestor.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

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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