Origins and Meaning of Names

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This article categorizes different naming traditions and customs. It also describes origins and meanings of surnames from around the world. It should help both novice and seasoned genealogy researchers.


Have you ever had the experience where your name was misspelled - perhaps on an account or in a letter? What are the typical misspellings or pronunciation errors associated with your name? It strikes one very personally because name is your possession and identification, and it tells the world who you are.

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Historically, names have served as a fingerprint of life, perhaps a basic clue to one's personality. Knowledge of naming practices in our ancestral country of origin can help us trace our respective families back to a village or a place, tell us their occupation, or it can give us an idea about what our ancestors looked like. The intriguing story of surnames dates back thousands of years. How and where they began, what their original meanings were, and their various spellings, is called the study of onomastics.

The first known people to acquire surnames were the Chinese. Legends suggest that the Emperor Fushi decreed the use of surnames, or family names, about 2852 BC. The Chinese customarily have three names. The surname is placed first and comes from one of the 438 words in the sacred Chinese poem Po-Chia-Hsing. The family name is followed by a generation name, taken from a poem of 30 characters adopted by each family. The given name is then placed last.

In early times, the Romans had only one name. However, they later changed to using three names. The given name stood first and was called a "praenomen." This was followed by the "nomen" which designates the gens, or clan. The last name designates the family and is known as the "cognomen," Some Romans added a fourth name, the "agnomen," to commemorate an illustrious action, or remarkable event. As the Roman Empire began to decline, family names became confused and single names once again became customary.

During the early Middle Ages, people were referred to by a single given name. But gradually the custom of adding another name as a way to distinguish individuals gained popularity. Certain distinct traits became commonly used as a part of this practice. For instance, the place of birth: St. Francis of Assisi; a descriptive characteristic: Lambert Le Tort, an Old French poet whose name means "Lambert the Nisted;" the person's occupation: Piers, Plowman; or the use of the father's name: Leif Ericsson.

By the 12th century, the use of a second name had become so widespread that, in some places, it was considered vulgar not to have one. However, even though this custom was the source of all surnames used today, the second names used in the early Middle Ages did not apply to families, nor were they hereditary.

Whether these second names evolved into fixed, hereditary surnames is difficult to pinpoint with any accuracy since the practice advanced slowly over a period of several hundreds of years. Many fixed surnames existed alongside the more temporary bynames and descriptive terms used by the people as second names.

The modern hereditary use of surnames is a practice that originated among the Venetian aristocracy in Italy about the 10th or 11th centuries. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land took note of this custom and soon spread its use throughout Europe. France, the British isles, and then Germany and Spain began applying the practice as the need to distinguish individuals became more important. By the 1370's the word "Surname" was found in documents, and had come to acquire some emotive and dynastic significance. Men sometimes sought to keep their surname alive by encouraging a collateral to adopt it when they had no direct descendants of their own in the male line, Although we can see that the handing on of a surname has become a matter of pride, we can only guess as to the reasons for adopting hereditary surnames in the first place.

Government became more and more a matter of written record. As the activities of government, particularly in the levying of taxation and the exaction of military service, touched an ever widening range of the population, perhaps it became necessary to identify individuals accurately. in some of the larger urban communities especially, personal names were no longer sufficient to distinguish people for social as well as administrative purposes. in the countryside, manorial administration, with its stress on hereditary succession to land, needed some means of keeping track of families and not just of individuals. We can be certain that by about 1450 at the latest, most people of whatever social rank had a fixed, hereditary surname. This surname identified the family, provided a link with the family's past, and would preserve its identity in the future. It is not surprising that the preservation of surnames became a matter of family pride. It was a cause for much regret if a man had no male descendants to whom he could pass on the surname he himself had inherited and had home with pride.

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Beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries, family names gained in popularity in Poland and Russia. The Scandinavian countries, bound by their custom of using the father's name as a second name, didn't begin using family surnames until the 19th century, Turkey waited until 1933, when the government forced the practice on its people.

In nearly every case, surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy landowners, and the practice then trickled down to the merchants and commoners. The first permanent names were those of barons and landowners who derived their names from the manors and fiefs. These names became fixed through the hereditary nature of their lands. For the members of the working and middle classes seeking status, the practices of the nobility were imitated, leading to the widespread use of surnames.

It would be a difficult task to work out a simple classification of family names due to spelling and pronunciation changes over the years. Many old words had different meanings, or are now obsolete. Many family names were dependent on the competency and discretion of the writer. The same name can sometimes be spelled in different ways even in the same document.

Family names have come down to us in various ways. They may have grown out of a person's surroundings or job, or the name of an ancestor. Most surnames evolved from four general sources:


The local house builder, food preparer, grain grinder and suit maker, would be named: John Carpenter, John Cook, John Miller and John Taylor. The person who made barrels was called cooper. The blacksmith was called Smith. Every village had its share of Smiths, Carpenters and Millers. The millers in one town weren't necessarily related to the Millers in the next town.


The John who lived over the hill became known as John Overhill; the one who dwelled near a stream might be dubbed John Brook, Many locational surnames originated as place names. You can tell that a surname is a locational place name if it ends with one of the regular place name elements, such as -hill, -ford, -wood, -brook, -well, and so on. Less easily recognized locational surnames end with -ton, -ham, -wick, -stead meaning a farm, or small settlement. Other common locational endings are -don, (a hill), -bury (a fortification) or -leigh, or -ley (a clearing).

Patronymic (father's name)

Many of these surnames can be recognized by the ten-nination son, such as Williamson, Jackson, etc. Some endings used by other countries to indicate "son" are: Armenians - ian; Danes and Norwegians - sen; Finns - nen; Greeks - poulos; Spaniards - ez; and Poles - wiecz, Prefixes denoting "son" are the Welsh - Ap, the Scots and Irish - Mac, and the Normans - Fitz. So, John the son of Randolph became John fitz-Randolph because "fitz" means son of." In Wales, David the son of John tacked ap" in front of his father's name, and David ap John was soon being called David Upjohn. in Scotland, Gilleain's descendants were known as MacGilleain and later shortened to Madeab, McClean, McLane, and all the other versions.


An unusually small person might be labeled Small, Short, Little or Lyfle, A large man might be named Longfellow, Large, Lang or Long. Many persons having characteristics of a certain animal would be given the animal's name. Examples: a sly person might be named Fox; a good swimmer, Fish; a quiet man, Dove; etc.

Many historians believe that surnames derived from places (locational) were the first to become hereditary. Surnames evolving from nicknames or descriptive traits (characteristic) are also of early origin. Surnames taken from occupations came later, and those of patronymic origin were the last to become hereditary. Even though patronymic names have been in use a long time, they would change with every generation: William's son John would be known as John Williamson, while his son William would be William Johnson. Surnames that are the most fun, the most surprising and sometimes even embarrassing, are the characteristic names. one word of caution, though: do not be distressed if your name originally meant something you consider uncomplimentary.

Remember that definition may have applied to someone who lived centuries ago. There are obvious characteristic surnames, including Longfellow, Redd (one with red hair), and White (white complexion or hair), and their Italian and German counterparts, Bianco and Weiss. You cannot always take at face value what names seem to mean, because changes in word meanings over the centuries. Hence the English name Stout, which brings to mind a rather fat fellow, is actually indicative of an early ancestor who was easily irritated, a noisy fellow. There are some names that leave us with an immediate picture of a person with a most distinctive physical characteristic: Stradling, an English name meaning one with bowed legs; the French Beaudry, -one with good bearing, beautiful; and the Irish Balfe - one who stammered and stuttered. Many surnames have more than one origin. For instance, the English surname "Bell" may designate one who lived or worked at the sign of the bell, or it may refer to a bell-ringer, or bellmaker. It may from the Old French word "bell" or pet form of Isabel.

Quick Links to Origins of Last Names Around the World

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Spelling Variations of the Family Names

When you begin to do more extensive research on your surname you may have difficulty finding it with the exact spelling which you use today. it, in fact may very well have been spelled differently hundreds of years ago, or you may even know of someone in your family's past who actually changed his name. The more research you do, the more likely you'll find several different spellings. Language changes, carelessness and a high degree of illiteracy (sometimes the man himself did not know how to spell his own name) compounded the number of ways a name might be spelled. Often the town clerk spelled the name the way it sounded to him.

When you begin your own intensive research in to your genealogy you will very likely need to consult many sources outside your immediate family. One type of source which you may find especially useful is fists of name - forms, their meaning and variant spellings. Such fists, along with more extensive onomastic dictionaries, now exist for many nationalities and name-groups. You will need to be alert to a wide range of spelling variations. Many names became altered in moving from one language to another. Thus, the German name Metzger (occupational in origin) became Butcher in English. Often, names were changed for political or social reasons, to blur or obscure ancestral associations which at a given time a family may have considered a liability. Some spellings may have been altered for the sake of simplification, thus losing their relational, occupational or locational prefixes and suffixes. For example, the surname "Rosenthal" - a valley where roses grow - may have been shortened to Rosen or Rose. With the exception of some place-names which still survive, most ancient Gaelic names in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have largely disappeared under their Anglicized forms: "Mac an Bhreitheamhnaigh," meaning son of a judge, may have become Briany or Brien, or Abraham (pronounced eh' brum), or even judge by translation. The Gaelic "ua," meaning grandson of, changed first to 0, then to 0', and was finally even dropped by some families. Many of these dropped familial prefixes have since been restored, but is likely that some accidental changes have entered the transactions.

We have mentioned the most common sources from which surnames are derived. We must now examine some of the idiosyncracies for name giving for the country of origin. Different cultures had different ways of choosing names for their offspring. Below are various nationalities and ethnic groups and some of the ways in which their names are derived.

The Origins of Surnames Around the World

Although your last name offers you the most substantial clues to your family history, first and middle names can also be valuable in tracing your family tree. We generally think of names with three parts: first, middle and last. First names are called "given" or "Christian" names, because early Christians changed their pagan first names to Christian names at baptism.

Most first names used in the Western World today originate from five languages: Hebrew, Teutonic (which included Germanic), Greek, Latin and Celtic (which includes Irish, Welsh and Scottish).

It's fascinating to learn how easily first names fall into obvious categories. Hebrew contributed biblical names, and about one-half of the English-speaking population have first names from the New Testament such as Elizabeth, Mary, John and Joseph. The Teutonic tongues gave us names linked with warlike characteristics, such as Charles (to become adult), or Ethel (noble). The Greek, Latin and Celtic languages also gave us names for personal characteristics and abstract qualities, For example, the Greek name Andrew means "manly," the Greek Dorothy is "gift of God," the Latin Victor means "victory in battle," and the Latin Laura translates to "the air." Names of Celtic origin are almost poetic, such as Kevin meaning "gentle and beloved" and Morgan meaning "sea dweller."

While there is a wealth of first names available, the actual selection process has been somewhat limited. it is necessary to remember that in 1545 the Catholic Church made the use of a saint's name mandatory for baptism, so for centuries first names have been confined to the John - and -Mary tradition. in fact, in all western countries during the Middle Ages, there were only about twenty common names for infant boys and girls. And John and Mary were most frequently used. In the 1600's the Protestants rejected anything associated with Catholicism, so in came names from the Old Testament, such as Elijah, Priscilla and Joshua.

Middle names weren't used until the 15th century when a second "first" name was used as a status symbol by German nobility. Many years passed before this practice became widespread, and in the United States, it did not become popular until after the Revolutionary War, when the fashion was to use the mother's maiden name.

Perhaps you have or will come across an ancestor's name with what appears to be a fide. For example, "Esquire" following a name meant someone much respected, one step away from a knight. "Gentleman" was one step down from an Esquire. The title "Goodman" (or a woman was called "Goody" or "Goodwife") meant the person was head of a household. Many other terms from our past have changed meaning. Esquire and Gentleman were expanded through the years to include persons with special social standing in the community - doctors, clergymen, lawyers. Also "Senior" and "Junior" placed immediately following a name did not necessarily imply a father - and - son relationship. They could have been an uncle and nephew who bore the same name and lived near each other. The term cousin was widely used to mean "an extended family," not legally just the child of an aunt or uncle.


Belgian surnames are either of French or Dutch Origin. In the North, surnames tend to be of a Dutch origin and are similar in nature to those found in the Netherlands. The remainder of the country falls under French influence, particulary the Walloon dialect, and surnames from these areas resemble those of the French.


Although China has over one billion people, there are approximately 1000 surnames, and only 60 of these are common. Most Chinese surnames are only one syllable and are characteristic of descriptive in origin. The most common Chinese names are Wang (yellow, Wong (field or wide water), Chan (old) and Chew (mountain). Since almost all Chinese names are one syllable and easy to pronounce, and because of strong Chinese family and ancestral ties, few names have been changed. The Chinese still place their surnames first, although this practice is no longer followed by the Chinese people living in Western countries.


Czech surnames are related to Polish surnames, but they tend to be shorter and easier to pronounce, since they contain fewer consonants. It is common to find a Czech surname derived from a nickname and diminutive forms are also widespread. Many Czechs have German or "Germanicized" names. Some interesting Czech surnames include the following: Hovorka (one who was overly talkative), Kostal (a dweller in a field where cabbages have been cut) and Metnick (one who ground grain, a miller).


The vast majority of Danish names are patronymic in origin and end in -sen. Prior to the late 1860's, these surnames were not hereditary, but changed with each generation. The son of Jorgen Petersen would be known by the surname Jorgensen. In 1904 the Danish Government began to encourage the use of surnames other than the traditional -sen names, and many people then added a place or occupational name to their -sen name by hyphenating the two. Other Danish surnames include: Henricksen (the son of Henry; home rule), Krogh (a worker in an inn, or dweller in a corner), Pedersen (the son of Peter; a rock) and Jorgenson (the son of George; farin er).


The use of hereditary family surnames began in the 13th and 14th centuries but did not spread to the Low Countries until the middle of the 17th century. Many Dutch names are recognized by the prefixes van, van der, van den, and ver which mean "from" or "from the." The Dutch van is not like the German von which designates nobility. Characteristic nicknames were also used as surnames by the Dutch, and, like many other cultures, patronymics which changed with each generation were long a fixture in the Dutch name system. The following surnames are of Dutch origin: Drukker (one who prints or works as a pressman), Zylstra (a dweller near a lock, or drainage sluice), Groen (the young, inexperienced, vigorous person) and Hartig (a strong, robust man).


By the end of the 13th century, Englishmen and English personal names were to be found not just in England but in many parts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well. These personal names were derived from a variety of sources. Some were biblical in origin, or were the names of saints and martyrs of the early Christian Church. Many were Norman, and a handful were Anglo-Saxon survivals or revivals. Also, saints who were popular in particular regions, such as Cuthbert in the north, might influence the choice of personal names in those regions. The following surnames are of English origin and their usage spread throughout Great Britain: Palmer (a palm-bearing pilgrim returned from the holy land), Weedman (one in charge of a heathen temple), Yale (a dweller at a corner, nook, or secret place) and Schoolcraft (a dweller in a hut in a small field or enclosure).

Edited by Lionel E. Mayrand from an orginal article contained in the Mayrand Archives.


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