Finding The Meanings And Origins Of Surname (Last Names)

Finding the meanings and origins of surname (last names) when tracing genealogoies.

Names--without them are we anything--with them are we anything? The essence of our being comes from within our heart and soul, the name is just a form of identification. A means of distinguishing one from another; or, perhaps the name is just as interesting and holds just as much history as the life of the person. The foundation for names can be traced back to the Bible, with names such as John the Baptist, Joshua the son of Nun, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, etc. In Matthew 14:8 John the Baptist is referred to as John Baptist, (...give John Baptist's head in a charger...) and in many verses Jesus the Christ is referred to as Jesus Christ, names they would be called by today.

Names fall into basic categories:

1) Parental: names derived from the first name of a parent male or female

2) Occupational: names deriving from one's occupation, positions, or titles (earl, lord, etc.)

3) Place:the name of a province, country, city, hill, river, lake, church, etc.

4) Nicknames: these names mainly derive from a physical characteristic

Parental Names

Many parental names can be traced back for hundreds of years, but not all of them. Their meanings are some times obscure, and in some instances unobtainable. Perhaps the most common type of name came from adding the name -son or a variation of this to the person's first name. As the years progressed and perhaps due to ease of use, some names such as Stephenson, or Robertson were shortened to Stephens, Roberts, etc. A lot of times your last name can be a clue to the first name of a very early ancestor. It can also be the clue to the type of work or position your earliest ancestors held.

Occupational Names

Occupational names are just that, names derived from a person's occupation, position, or title. A French carpenter would hold the name Charpentier, and the English counterpart would be Carpenter. While a French weaver would be Tisserand and it would be Weaver in England, and Weber in German. The English Tanner, would be Tanneur in French. Many other names clearly distinguish the persons occupation or title: Farmer, Shepherd, Cook, Mason, Baker, Parson, Smith, Goldsmith, Taylor or Tailor, Knight, Lord, Baron, Plummer, Skinner, etc. Not only do you gain insight into the type of life your ancestors lived and worked at daily, but you also gain insight into the history of the country and its culture.

Place Names

Place names can refer to not only cities, or rivers, but also to more obscure things, like a meadow (Meadows), a field (Field, or Fields). Alcott is a name derived from the old English meaning "old cottage," or perhaps even the name of a particular field or meadow. When surnames became a thing of necessity, they were taken from the easiest methods possible. The place you lived, worked, your parents name male or female, and from characteristics.


Surnames derived from physical characteristics are by no means singular to the English language. The French Petit; English, Small or Little; or the German, Stout; and the English Tubman are all names deriving from a physical characteristic. Many names were not names of choice, but, names of pattern. If you are redheaded, short, chubby, and somewhat jolly in nature, you could become John Redman; John Short, John Chubbman, Red John, etc. Names of animals were also given to a person if they displayed characteristics resembling that of the animal. Such as the surnames of: Hawke, Hawkes, Lyons, Fox, Wolf, Wolfe, Robin, etc.

No matter what the name, it has meaning, and this meaning can some times bring about great rewards, lengthy research away from the ancestral trail, which at times is a welcome break, and it can also create a new understanding and likeness of this world we call home. Never let a name be just a name, it has a meaning and most likely a very interesting history--and it's yours.

The spelling may have changed over the years, or the pronunciation may have been changed for simplicity, but this name, be it Snitzelheimer, Yen Su Ling, Berghous, Miles, or Webster, is the connection between you and hundreds of years of history. A history that only you can uncover and unlock the hidden treasures. Don't let the confusion and mystery of a name stop your search. Eventually it will all come together.

The best starting point is with personal interviews with relatives. Bring a notepad and pencil with you and have your questions already written out. Don't be afraid to ask for interviews with relatives that you do not know. Be accurate in your copying of the information. Don't overlook or refuse any materials or information your relatives may offer. Also if any relative expresses a desire to help, except their offer. Two heads are better than one at times. And remember to always ask if a family Bible or a family history exists. The names you find in the Bibles can be of great asset and will probably be more accurate then other names, yet may be totally wrong if the family member could not spell.

Always be discreet when asking your questions. Remember that you are inquiring about loved ones--people they may have spent a lifetime of sharing, or people they may have spent little time with. As difficult as it may be for some families to believe, not all brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. got along with each other. You personally may not have known very much about great uncle Willie because great uncle Willie had an argument with great uncle Ted and they haven't spoken since. So, be cautious. Sensitivity is always an asset. But do not give up.

Although Uncle Willie will not discuss Uncle Ted, maybe his wife will or another relative will. Somewhere there is a piece of information that will explain Uncle Ted, just remember to be prepared for your findings. As difficult as it may be to believe, even the greatest family has difficulties. You may not want to hear this or even see it in writing, the answers you find may not always be the answers you hoped for or wanted--but--they are yours and they make up the beginning and future of your life. Treat it with respect and care, and it will develop itself into a treasure of love and memories.

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