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What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet." -- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

by Bob Brooke

A person's name is one of his or her most personal possessions. It defines who they are. A name can predispose one person to like or dislike another. In history, a person's name acts as a fingerprint--an identity--the first clue as to who they are.

There are over one and half million surnames in the U.S. Although large numbers of immigrants brought their own surnames to this country in the 19th century, family names today are close to what they were in Colonial times. According to the first U.S. census taken in 1790, the most common surnames were Smith, Brown, Johnson, Jones, and Davis. Today, the most common are Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown and Jones.

Why have the predominant family names changed so little in over 200 years? The answer lies in the Americanization of names. For instance, many of the people whose names mean "blacksmith"--Kuznetov from Russia, Ferraro from Italy, Schmidt from German--simply translated their names and disappeared into the over two million Smiths living in the U.S.

Of course, many immigrant names were too hard to pronounce and custom officials "gave" them new ones upon entry into this country, so tracing original names of these people can be a major problem.

However, some ethnic groups, in general, haven't Americanized their last names. Asians, especially the Chinese and Korean have only a few last names, such as Chan and Chew in Chinese and Park and Kim in Korean. Because they and those of Hispanic descent have such strong family ties, few of their family names have changed. Also, many Asian cultures, such as the Vietnamese, put their surnames first--such as Tran Keo Lu(Tran being the surname).

The practice of using surnames wasn't adopted in Western countries until about 1000 A.D., when merchants in Venice needed to know who owed them money. From Venice, the practice spread to France, England, Germany and the rest of Europe.

Surnames originated in four ways--according to place, occupation, patronymics (son of), or nicknames. Place and patronymics hold the highest percentages.

In England, nobles usually took their surnames from the names of their estates--Somerset, for example. Often common people took the name of their village or a distinguishing geographical feature--Atwater (at the water) or Green (by the village green). Occupational names are based on a trade such as Miller or Smith (blacksmith).

Many Western cultures use patronymics to form surnames. Some languages use a prefix such as O'Malley (Irish for "descendant of Malley") or MacGregor (Scottish for "son of Gregory"). However, most languages use a suffix--Petersen (Danish for son of Peter), Pieterzoon (Dutch for the same), Ivanovich (Russian for sone of Ivan), Sanchez (Spanish for son of Sancho), or Mendelssohn (German for son of Mendel).

However, it took a while for this system to stabilize. At first, the son would add the prefix or suffix to this father's name and his son would do likewise, changing the surname every generation. But once local governments required names to be listed on official documents, the standardization of surnames became common.

Finally, some surnames are derived from nicknames--Little (someone small in stature), Longfellow (someone longlegged), or Reid (someone with red hair). So it pays to be a little creative when searching names of ancestors, since the surnames may have changed along the way.

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