Origins Of Surnames

An overview of the origins of surnames.

For a thousand years Europeans made do with only one last name, but as people tend to do, they multiplied. By the early Middle Ages record keeping was getting tricky. Suppose there were six Johns in the village; how was the tax collector to make sure which one was delinquent? So by royal decree, over a number of years folks began to give themselves a surname, or last name as we call them.

Since names were originally self-inflicted wounds, this explains why most names have positive meanings. Thus it's rare to bump into Jeanine Grump or Jerome Wartnose. However, before we reach the erroneous conclusion that every surname has a single identifiable and inescapable meaning, we should know that surname sleuthing often involves multiple possibilities or a high degree of conjecture. For example, think of a name invented on the spot when Eastern European immigrants reached Ellis Island only to be confronted with unsympathetic immigration officials who rejected complicated spellings. As a result, let's say, Kosczinski might have been shortened on the spot to Kos.

Despite this, one can fairly safely generalize that European-based surnames were arrived at via four basic mechanisms. The first category was based on the name of the father; such names are called patronymics, i.e., father names. The process was simple. The father's name or nickname was compounded with son to create a surname. English surnames are rather obviously decoded as a result. Williamson, Johnson, Davidson are obvious examples. Cobb, derived from an ancient pet name for Jacob, is a less obvious example.

However, one needs to bear in mind that this same process was taking place throughout the rest of Europe with slight variations that might fool a name detective. For example, in Scotland and Ireland son was replaced by Mac or Mc; thus, McDougal and MacCollum translate as son of Dougal or Collum. In Wales the on in son tended to disappear; thus, Welsh Jones is simply Johnson and Davis is the son of David. Additionally in Wales, Ap was sometimes added to signify son of; however, as a result of rapid speech, the a was swallowed, so that ApHugh (son of Hugh) comes down to us as Pugh.

Outside the boundaries of the United Kingdom the same process was occurring; thus in Scandinavia Hansen and Jansen would equate with the son of Hans and Jan (John). In Spain ez did the same job; therefore, Perez was the son of Pedro. Farther afield geographically, wicz signified the son of in Polish names, for example, in Abramowicz (son of Abraham).

A second device by which surnames were taken was occupation. Some common names are obviously occupational, e.g., Miller, Smith, and Baker. On the other hand, some ancient occupations have disappeared, obscuring occupational origins. Fletcher, for instance, was an arrow maker, Fiske a fish dealer, and Faulkner a handler of falcons. If the surname was not an English one, the occupational origins of the name can be even less obvious. For instance, German Meyer was a village official, Czechoslovakian Hudec a fiddler, and French Ferrier a smith.

A third device by which surnames were created had to do with where one lived. English Ford, for instance, signifies one who lived near the crossing point of the river. German Hammer was one who lived at a flat place beside a stream, and Beck was one who simply lived by the stream. French duPont resided near the bridge, while English Easter was one who lived towards the east and Hispanic Espinoza signified one who lived near a thorny bush.

The final common method by which names were created was description of personal characteristics. English Brown, the one with brown hair, is an obvious example. The German variant on the same name Braun is somewhat less obvious as is the Italian Bruno, still meaning Brown. While most descriptive surnames were complimentary--Bright, Smart, Long; not all were. Exceptions to the rule include Scottish Campbell--one with a crooked mouth; English Gee meaning lame; French Gore, an idle individual and Guignion--one who squints.

In short, although the surname we bear may have come to us by messy and complicated mating patterns, the undeniable truth is that surnames are, with few exceptions, (by legal mandate European Jews were forced to take surnames in the early 1800s) remnants of a simple Medieval way of life, and with a little detective work, their origins can be unraveled.

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