Remember the thrill of discovering the surnames of your 3rd G-Grandparents? Or the maiden name of a long passed relative? We identify with our family surnames, don’t we? Whether a surname is the one that we were born with, married into or from a branch of the family we admire, it is a tangible link to our ancestors.
Surnames have a complex history. Most cultures didn’t have surnames until the mid-1500s. A few cultures had surnames earlier than that while others did not have surnames until the 20th century. Let’s explore surnames.
Most surnames were the result of necessity. Maybe there were three or four men with the name of Robert in a small village. How could they be differentiated in conversations? Which Robert was the farmer on the hill? Or the smithy in the village? Or the extremely tall butcher down the street? Overtime they might have been identified as Robert Hill, Robert Smith and Robert Long. People were named for the geographical area, their occupation or even their physical attributes.
People with money or land who had business transactions needed a way to differentiate themselves from someone with their same first name. People who worked for the landed gentry or a clan in Scotland, took the last name of their landlord or Scottish Laird. Surnames also reflect the language and ethnic regions.
As our ancestors immigrated to other countries, their surnames evolved. They might use the farmland name from the “old country” to differentiate themselves from others with the same surname. Even siblings within the same immigrant family might choose different surnames...and unless you knew how people were related, you wouldn’t know they were siblings by their surnames! It was not uncommon for families to “Americanize” their surname spelling, dropping a vowel here, a consonant there… People change their surnames today whether through marriage or a legal change or blended families. More puzzles for future genealogists!
Here are some fun resources to explore Surnames and their meanings and origins.
100 Most Common Names in the United States – ThoughtCo.
Irish Genealogy - Surnames
Italian Last Names
Last Names Origins and Meanings – Ancestry
Forebears – Origins of Surnames
Family Surname Meanings
The Meaning and History of Surnames
As you do your family history and write your family story for the origins and meanings of your family surnames. They will add interest to your story and may provide you with clues about the locations where your ancestors lived, their physical attributes and their occupations.
“Names have power.”
― Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.