21    Mar 20072 comments

Names: An Introduction


Genealogists and family historians are nothing without names. Names are what we need. Without an all-important name, we cannot go back in time.

Newcomers might think that their family's current name has remained unchanged since surnames were adopted. That simply isn't the case and names have continually evolved for many reasons. Perhaps the most elemental is that spelling just wasn't as important back in the far past when most people were illiterate.

Surnames and their spellings been affected by ethnic naming practices and patterns, social class and immigration. Your name may be a simple variation, an Americanized or Anglicized version, or one that has been "invented," with no relation whatsoever to the original.

While some names have been traced for hundreds of years in a general geographic region, other quests require major sleuthing skills, along with detailed knowledge of specialized ethnic, social, cultural, religious and historical events.

There are many reasons why we can't find the names we know must be there … somewhere. The main reasons why these continue their game of hide and seek are due to misspelling, translations between languages, names not spelled as pronounced, changed (but not at Ellis Island - a major urban myth), etc.

This multi-part series of postings will address common problems and how to get around the obstacles.


For most of civilization, surnames were simply not necessary.

China claims the first use of surnames in 2852 BC. In the 11th century, European surnames are recorded. As an example, Spanish Jews first began to use surnames in the 1100s, and in the 9th century in some cases, according to archival and notarial records. In most of Europe, however, Jews were not required to adopt surnames until the early 19th century.

As long as the world's population remained small and localized in villages, it was enough to know that in the village of Smalltown, David was the shoemaker, Simon the baker, Thomas the barrel-maker (cooper) and John the blacksmith. Since there was only one resident following each occupation, the townspeople required only the artisan's first name (given name). Everyone knew each man personally and where his business was located.

When the village began to grow, or villagers moved to larger towns or into cities, there may have appeared several shoemakers named David, bakers named Simon, coopers named Thomas, and smiths named John.

A single name wasn't sufficient. David decided to adopt his craft as his name: David Shoemaker. Simon found there were already several bakers with his name, so he decided to use his father's name as his surname - Simon Johnson (John's son). Thomas also took his craft as a name: Thomas Cooper, and the blacksmith became John Smith.

In the Middle Ages, family names are generally in four categories:

1. Patronymics are family names formed from a father's name ("son," son of) - a common device. Less common except in Scandinavia and Iceland are matryonymics formed from a mother's name ("dottir," daughter of). In the British Isles, some commonly used prefixes or suffixes are Mac (Gaelic), Fitz (Norman), O (Irish) and ap (Welsh).

2. Location, location, location: People were also identified by geographical features such as a river, forest, valley or a major building like a CHURCH or CASTLE. If a man lived in the western part of the forest, he may have been called WESTWOOD or FOREST. People also used their town of origin after moving to a larger population center, so those individuals we described above might just as easily have taken the name SMALLTOWN. This would be helpful when former neighbors visited and tried to locate the family.

3. Some omnastics (the study of names) scholars believe 10% of all names are based on physical characteristics or personality. Origins may be in medieval nicknames for body shape (tall and thin), hair (or not), beards, deformities (one eye, lame), hair color (red) or even character. A strong man might have been called ARMSTRONG, a short person was called SMALL.

4. Occupational names come from crafts or trades. MILLER ground flour, TAILOR made clothing. COOPER made barrels. In other countries, look for translations of such occupations: TAILOR is KHAYAT (Farsi) or SHNEIDER (Yiddish). MELNIK is miller (Russian).

Over the centuries, spelling and pronunciation changed, presenting contemporary genealogists with real challenges.

Different branches of a family may carry different names. Many contemporary English and American surnames have numerous variants. When researching a surname, remember to work back through the generations to determine the original name.

The next posting in this series will focus on names following immigration, the impact of accents on names and search techniques. Future postings will investigate naming patterns, origins, meanings and will provide links for additional research.

Readers are invited to post any questions or comments about names in general or specific names. I look forward to reading your comments.

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Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I want to know about El
  2. Comment to 1. Patronymics. Matronymics are not common in Iceland and Scandinavia. NNs-dottir or NNsdatter means "daughter of NN". NN is the father, and the surname is a female's patronymic. It is a fact more than a surname, and can not be changed by marriage.

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