Origins of Family Names
Chapman looks at how surnames have evolved from ancient times.
contain a small, but well-memorialized, slice of our family
histories. To those who have deciphered them, surnames offer
a clue about one of our ancestors’ memorable traits
at the time when surnames were becoming fixed.
Julius Caesar has come to be known by his family name
(Julius) and his common name (Caesar). His first name,
Gaius, is generally omitted.
Throughout prehistory, and indeed for most of recorded history,
most people have been known by only one name. In simpler societies,
where everyone could reasonably be expected to know all their
neighbors and only rarely to come into contact with people
from other towns, a single name sufficed. Only in more complex
societies, most notably that of the Roman Empire, were men
frequently known by more than one name. The complex Roman
systemincorporated a personal first name (praenomen),
a hereditary family name (nomen), a nickname or “common
name” (cognomen), and possibly a battery of
acquired names (agnomen) based upon character traits
(Pius, Augustus, etc.) or military accomplishments (Africanus,
Germanicus, etc.). People might also be known for their place
of origin or residence (of Syracuse, the Thracian, etc.).
The names of famous Romans have come down through history
in a wide variety of manners: Marcus Tullius Cicero is known
only by his nickname (Cicero, or chick-pea), Gaius Julius
Caesar is known by both his family name (Julius) and his common
name (Caesar, or redhead), and Marcus Antonius is usually
known by the anglicized name “Mark Anthony”, probably
because of Shakespeare’s influence.
With the end of the Roman Empire and the dawning of the medieval
period, trade, travel and learning declined throughout Europe,
North Africa and the Middle East, and life once again moved
at a slower, if not necessarily simpler, pace. By the fifth
century, hereditary surnames had all but vanished. Those who
didn’t farm lived in villages or small towns where a
first name, sometimes accompanied by a casual nickname, was
enough to distinguish one citizen from one another. Still,
nicknames were used fairly often, as our medieval ancestors
drew their children’s names from a much smaller pool
of possibilities than we use today. In England, for example,
the names John and William were extremely dominant, with the
occasional Thomas thrown in for variety.
The secondary nicknames, or bynames, were commonly based on
where one lived, one’s lineage, one’s occupation,
or some unusual feature or habit. Only in larger towns might
there be an occasional mix-up — and this sort of thing
could be remedied by having one of the town’s two John
Smiths adopt an alternative byname, such as John the Young.
Though it did have some failings, this informal system was
quite functional for most purposes. Since few people ever
had dealings with the world beyond their home town, first
names and casual nicknames sufficed in most situations. Most
people were illiterate, and written documents were created
only very rarely (as some genealogists can attest), so there
were few pressures for standardization of spelling or form.
Indeed, it seems that surnames were generally adopted more
for their style than their substance. One of the first groups
to employ standardized surnames were the nobles of Normandy,
who adopted surnames for roughly the same reasons that European
rulers adopted titles of nobility. A surname was seen as being
a mark of status that helped to distinguish the aristocrat
from the commoner. The practice spread from Normandy to the
rest of France and, following the Norman conquest in 1066,
the English and Scottish nobility adopted the Norman affectation
with enthusiasm, though hereditary surnames had been all but
unknown previously. In both Britain and France, the practice
spread from the landowning class to all classes in the early
1300s, being adopted in larger settlements first.
In a 1586 work titled Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning
Britaine, William Camden wrote: “About the yeare
of our Lord 1000... surnames began to be taken up in France,
and in England about the time of the Conquest, or else a very
little before, under King Edward the Confessor, who was all
Frenchified... but the French and wee termed them Surnames,
not because they are the names of the sire, or the father,
but because they are super added to Christian names as the
Spanish called them Renombres, as Renames.”
Though the practice of employing surnames was imported from
Normandy, British surnames drew from a broad range of ethnic
and linguistic roots, which reflected the history of Britain
as an oft-invaded land. These roots include, but are not limited
to, Old English, Middle English, Old French, Old Norse, Irish,
Gaelic, Celtic, Pictish, Welsh, Gaulish, Germanic, Latin,
Greek and Hebrew.
Norman Conquest of England in 1066 greatly stimulated
the adoption of hereditary surnames among the vanquished
English and Scottish nobles. The practice later spread
from the upper classes to all classes.
Though hereditary surnames had become common in England by
the early 1300s, even as late as 1465 they were not universal.
During the reign of Edward V, a law was passed requiring certain
Irish to adopt surnames in order to make them easier to track
and control: “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.” Other ethnic groups that adopted hereditary
surnames comparatively late include the Norse, Welsh and Dutch,
who persisted in using non-fixed bynames until as late as
the 17th century.
It is interesting to note that hereditary surnames have only
returned to common usage in the past 900 years, and that the
possession of a third name (middle name) has only become common
in the past two centuries.
As mentioned, English bynames and surnames can be quite cleanly
separated into four distinct categories: names based on lineage,
names based on geography, names based on occupation, and nicknames
based on some unusual characteristic.
Surnames based on lineage are very common in English-speaking
countries. Either the name of the father is simply appended
to the name of the child (i.e., John William) or a possessive
“s” might be added, giving names like Williams.
In some cases, the ending “son” is added, producing
names such as Davidson, Richardson, or Anderson (son of Andrew).
The suffix “kin” can be used in surnames as a
diminutive — so Tomkin is “Little Thomas”,
Wilkin is “Little William” and Perkin is “Little
Peter”. The Irish “O”, as in O’Brien,
means the grandson of Brien. In Scotland and Ireland, either
“Mac” or “Mc” means “son of”;
“ap” serves the same purpose in Wales. Families
which had settled in Ireland soon after the Norman Conquest
may have a surname beginning with “Fitz” (from
the French “fils”, for “son”). “Fitz”,
as used in England often indicates illegitimacy — so
the surname Fitzroy means the illegitimate son of the King
(from the French, Fils de Roi). The same function is served
by “ez” in Spain and Portugal, “szen”
or “sen” in the Netherlands, by “sen”,
“son” or “zoon” in Scandinavian countries,
by “ov” or “ev” in Slavic countries
or by “ibn” in Arab lands.
Surnames representing localities are easy to spot if they
come from a specific geographical area or part of land. “Ewan
Ireland” is obviously shorthand for “Ewan, from
Ireland” — Ewan would only be called this in a
foreign country. Similarly, an ancestor recorded as Tom Lincoln
may have thought of himself as just plain Tom, but been called
Tom Lincoln by others when outside the town of Lincoln. If
your surname ends in land, ton, ville, ham, don, burg, berg,
borg, bury, berry, field, fort, caster, chester, thorpe, by,
dorf, hoff, dam, gracht, veld, stead, stadt, stad, grad or
any similar place-specific suffix, you can probably find the
origin of your name by simply perusing a comprehensive atlas.
The evolution of language has made others are less obvious:
Cullen (“back of the river”), and Dunlop (“muddy
hill”). Saxon names referred to the bearer’s estate
or place of residence using the word “atte” (“at
the”), which has survived in surnames such as Atwood,
Atwell and Atwater. Continental European names often employed
the particles des, d’, de, de la, de las, della, del,
di, du, da, van, vande, van der, von and ten — all of
which mean from, at, or of.
Occupational surnames were derived from a man’s occupation
(Carpenter, Taylor, Baker, Mason, etc.). Some names which
refer to a social situation – such as Lord, Young and
Freeman — are also placed in this category. Some apparently
obvious occupational names aren’t what they may seem,
however. A Farmer did not work in agriculture but collected
taxes, and Banker is not an occupational surname at all, meaning
“dweller on a hillside”. Another common stumbling
point in the deciphering of occupational names is that many
medieval jobs no longer exist. While it’s still fairly
easy for us to understand that a Falconer trained falcons,
it never occurs to us that a Purcell would be a seller of
pork, that a Walker would walk on cloth, or that a Kellogg
would kill hogs.
Nicknames are perhaps the most fascinating surnames. They
were most commonly based on some obvious physical trait —
Long (for height), Short and Beard are three obvious examples
— or aspect of an individual’s personality —
Gay, Moody and Stern being common examples. The nicknames
were not always flattering, of course. Beckett is Old French
for ‘little beak’, Courtney is French for ‘short
nose’, Cameron is Gaelic for ‘crooked nose’.
Nicknames based on animals with distinctive traits are common,
particularly in Germany and Eastern Europe. Wolves, bears,
eagles and ravens figure prominently. Some nicknames such
as the English Drinkwater or the Czech Nejezchleba (“Don’t
eat bread!”) refer to characteristics or incidents that
modern bearers of the names can’t easily comprehend.
Names in North America
were adopted much more gradually in Scandinavia. Eric
the Red (left)was known only by his given name and his
nickname. His son, Leif Ericson (right), was known by
his first name and by a patronymic byname, but this
name was personal to Leif and not yet hereditary.
Canada and the US employ a greater variety of family names
than anywhere else in the world - a greater variety of first
names too, for that matter. Surnames have been imported from
almost every region of the earth, and some have been newly
invented, either accidentally or intentionally. Some changed
their names to something "American sounding" upon
arrival so as to leave the past behind. Others translated
their old name into English. Some families had no fixed surname
until after their immigration, at which point they had to
commit their family name to paper for perhaps the first time.
(Or rather, what the clerks thought they heard was committed
While the majority of North American names are of Western
European origin, many others have come from southern and eastern
Europe, the Middle East, India and East Asia.
While once surnames were little more than convenient labels
to distinguish one William from another, through time surnames
have become charged with a greater significance. Family names
have become badges of honor. They are a symbol of the continuity
of a family line and all that a family stands for, intimately
associated with its achievements and prestige. It has become
the "good name" to be proud of and to protect as
one's most treasured possession.
article originally appeared in the July/August 2000 issue
of Family Chronicle.