The Origins of Family Names


By  Ron  Collins



      Primitive personal names doubtless originated soon after the invention of spoken language, in the unreceorded ages long preceeding modern history.  For thousands of years first, or given names, were the only designations that men and women bore; and at the dawn of recorded historic times, when the world was less crowded than it is today and every man knew his neighbors, one title of address was sufficient.  Only gradually, with the passing centuries and the increasing complexity of civalized society, did a need arise for more specific designations.  While the roots of our system of family manes may be traced back to early civalized times, actually the hereditary surnames, as we know them today, dates scarcely more than nine hundred years ago.

      A surname is aname added to a baptismal or given name for the purpose of making it more specific and of indicating family relationship or descent.  Classified according to origin, most surnames fall into four general groups : ( 1 ) those formed from the given name of the sire ; ( 2 ) those arising from bodily or personal characteristics ; ( 3 ) those derived from locality or place of residence ; and ( 4 ) those derived from occupation.
    It is easier to understand the story of the developement of our institution of surnames if these classifications are borne in mind.

--  Ancient Names  --
--  The Beginnings of Surnames  --
--  Classes of Family Names  --
--  Family Names in the United States  --
--  Sources of Information  --

Ancient Names
      As early as Biblical times certain distingguishing characteristics were occasionally used in addition to the given name, as, for instance, Swein Forkbeard, Harold Bluetooth, Joshua the son of Nun, Azariah the son of Nathan, Judas of Galilee, and Simon the Zealot.
      In ancient Greece a daughter was named after a father, as Chryseis, a daughter of Chryses; and a son's name was often an enlargement for of his father's, as Hieronymus son of Hiero.
      The Romans, with the rise of their civilization, met the need for hereditary designations by inventing a complex system whereby every patrician took several names.  None of them, however, exactly corresponded to surnames as we know them, for the "clan name", although hereitary, was given also to slaves and other dependents.  Examples are the Claudians, the house of Tiberias and the Julians.  This system proved to be but a temporary innovation; the overthrow of the Western Empire by Celtic and Germanic barbarian invaders brought about its end and a reversion to the primitive custom of a single name.
      The ancient Scandinavians, and for the most part the Germans and the celts, had only individual names, and there were no family names, strictly speaking.  But as family and tribal groups grew in size, individual names became inadequate and the need for supplemtary designations began to be felt.  Among the first employed were such terms as the Hardy, the Stern, the Dreadful - in - battle; and the nations of northern Europe soon adopted the practice of adding the father's name to the son's, as Oscar son of Carnuth and Dermid son of Duthno.

The Beginnings of Surnames
      True surnames, in the sense of hereditary appellations, date in England from about the year 1000.  Largely they were introduced from Normandy, although there are records of Saxon, surnames prior to the Norman Conquest.  During the reign of Edward the Confessor, (1042-1066) there were Saxon tenants in Suffolk bearing such names as Suert Magno, Stigand Soror, Siuward Rufus, and Leuic Hobbesune (Hobson); and the Domesday record of 1085-1086, which exhibits some curious combinations of Saxon forenames with Norman family names, shows surnames in still more general use.
      By the end of the twelth century hereditary names had become common in England.  But even as late as 1465 they were not universal.  During the reign of Edward V a law was passed to compel certain Irish to adopt surnames as a method to track and control them more: "They shall take unto them a surname, either of some town, or some color, as Black or Brown, or some Art or Science, as Smyth or Carpenter, or some office, as Cooke or Butler." And as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century a similar decree compelling Jews in Germany and Austria to add a German surname to the single names that they had previously used.
Classes of Family Names
      Again, family names fall into four general classes according to their origin.  One of these classes comprises surnames derived from the given name of their father.  Such names were formed by adding a prefix or suffix denoting either "son of" or a diminutive.  English names terminating in "son" (or the contraction "s"), "ing", and "kin" are of this type, as are also the innumerable names prefixed with the Gaelic "Mac", the Norman "Fitz", The Irish "O", and the Welsh "ap".  Thus the sons of John became Johnsons; the sons of William, Williamsons or Wilsons; the sons of Richard, Richardsons or Richards; the sons of Neill, MacNeills; the sons of Herbert, FitzHerberts; the sons of Reilly O'Reillys; and the sons of thomas, ap Thomases (ap has been dropped from many names of which it was formerly a part).  There are also German, Netherlands, Scandinavian, and other European surnames of similar formation, such as the Scandinavian names ending in " sen ".  In hte Slavic countries the "sky" and "ski" played the same role.
      Another class of surnames, those arising from some bodily or personal characteristic of their first bearer, apparently grew out of what were in the first instance nicknames.  Thus Peter the strong became Peter Strong, Roger of small stature became Roger Little or Roger Small, and black-haired William or blond Alfred became William Black or Alfred White.  A few examples of names of this type are Long, Short, Hardy, Wise, Good, Gladman, Lover, and Youngman.
      A third class of family names, and perhaps the largest of all, is that, comprising local surnames - names derived from and originally designating the place of residence of the bearer.  Such names were employed in france at an early date (such as La Porte "at the entrance to") and were introduced into England by Normans, many of whom were known by the titles of their estates.
      The surnames adopted by nobility were chiefly of this type, being used with the particles "de", " de la" or "del" (meaning "of" or "of the").  The Saxon equivalent was the word "atte" ("at the"), found in the names as John atte Brook, Edmund atte Lane, Godwin atte Brigg, and William Atwood, John Atwell and Atwater; in other cases The Norman "de" was sunstituted; and in still others, such as Wood, Briggs, and Lane, the particle instance, means "of the friendly village"; Endicott.  " an end cottage"; and Bradford, "a broad for".  The suffixes "ford", "ham", "ley", and "ton", denoting locality, are of frequent occurance in such English names as Ashford, Bingham, Burley, and Norton.
      Commencing about the time of Edward the Confessor a fourth class of surnames arose, i.e. names derived from occupation.  The earliest of these seem to have been official names, such as Bishop, Mayor, Alderman, Reeve, Sheriff, Chamberlain, Chancellor, Chaplain, Deacon, Latimer (interpreter), Marshall, Summer (summoner), and Parker (parkkeeper).  Trade and craft names, although of the same general type, were slightly later developement.  Currier was a dresser of skins, Webster a weacer, Wainwright a wagon builder, and Baxter a baker,  Names as Smith, taylor, Barber, Sherard, Carter, Mason, Na Miller are self-explanatory.  In France similarly we have La Farr (iron worker); in Germany there was Winegar (vine dresser) and Muller (Miller).
      Some surnames of today which seem to defy classification or explanation are corruptions of ancient forms that have been become disguised almost beyond recognition.  For instance, Troublefield was orignally Tuberville; Wrinch was Barraclough; and Strawbridge was Stourbridge; Such corruptions of family names, resulting from ignorance of spelling, variations in pronunciation, or merely from the preference of the bearer, tend to baffle both the genealogist and the etymologist.  Shakespeare's name is found in some twenty-seven different forms, and the majority of English and Anglo-American surnames have, in their history, appeared in four to a dozen or more variant spellings.  For example the German family Winegar that came to N. America in the Palatine Migration of 1709 has their name listed in various lists as Winegar, Wenneger, Weyniger, Wyniger, Weneger, Winiger and Wienneger.

Family Names In The United States
      In the United states a greater variety of family names exists than anywhere else in the world.  Surnames of every religion, race and nation are represented.  While a substantial number are of English, Scotch, Irish, Welsh, and western European origin, brought to this country by scions of families that had borne these names for generations prior to emigration, many others have come from central and southern Europe and the Slavic countries, where the use of surnames is generally a more recently established practice.  Some families had no fixed surname until after arrival of America; and in other cases emigrants from continental Europe of their decendants have translated or otherwise modified their names.  These factors contribute to the difficulties encountered by students of etymology and family history.
      Those Americans who possess old and honored names - who trace their surnames back to sturdy immigrant ancestors, or beyond, across the seas and into the mists of antiquity - may be rightfully proud of their heritage.  While the name, in its origin, may seem ingenious, humble, surprising, or matter-of-fact, its significance today lies not in a literal interpretation of its initial meaning but in many things that have happened to it since it first came into use.  In the beginning it was a label to distinguish one John from his neighbor John who lived across the field.  But soon it established itself as part of the bearer's individuality; and as it passed to his children, his childern's children, and their children, it became the symbol not of one man but of a family and all that family stood for..  Handed down from generation to genarstion, a surname grew inseparably associated with the achievement, the tradition, and the prestige of the family.  Like the coat of arms - that vivid symbolization of the name which warrior ancestors bore in battle - the name itself has become a badge of family honor.  It has become the "ggod name" to be proud of and to protect as one's most treasured possession.

Sources of Information
*  Bardsley. Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames. 1901.  * 
         Encyclopedia Americana. 1929. *
*  Ewen. History of Surnames of the British Isles. 1931.  *
         Weekly. Surnames. 1927.  *
*  Harrison. Surnames of the United kingdom. 1912 - 1918.
*  Lower. Dictionary of family Names. 1860.  *
         Woulfe. Irish Names and Surnames. 1923
--  Ron Collins is an active genealogist and a participant in
          online genealogy services.