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The Origins of Family Names

Jeff Chapman looks at how surnames have evolved from ancient times.

Gaius Julius Caesar has come to be known by his family name (Julius) and his common name (Caesar). His first name, Gaius, is generally omitted.
Surnames 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.
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.

Medieval Names
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.”

The 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 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.

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.

Categories of Names
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.

Surnames 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.
Family Names in North America
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 to paper.)

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.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Family Chronicle.


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