The History of Last Names




      Did your grandparents have a middle name ?  If they did, chances are their parents didn't.  The three name system that is fairly standard among the English speaking countries is a relatively recent developement.  Still - it wasn't just invented.
      The Romans had an elaborate three name system that fell along with the Empire, and by the fourth century AD there was nary a middle name to be found.  Single names worked as well as can be expected for the next hundred years.  The practice of attaching a word to help identify a man was resurrected in venice and spread first to France, then England, then Germany -- then to the rest of Europe.  (most of Europe, anyway...) Today, those without a surname are the exception, and Cher, Madonna, and Sting started out with a last name!
      The chinese were the first to adopt surnames to honor their forebearers, with the family name placed first, rather than last.  Thus, the family name of Sun Yat-sen is Sun.  Surnames that describe a man by his relatives are only one of several categories of surnames.
      When communities consisted of just a few people, surnames weren't so important.  But as each town acquired more and more johns and Mary's the need was established for a way to identify each from the other.  The Romans had begun the practice for a way to identify each from the other.  The Romans had begun the practice of using "given-name + clan=name + family name" about 300 B.C.  In the English speaking part of the world, the exact date that surnames began to be adopted can't be pinpointed.  The Domesday Book compiled by William the Conqueror required surnames, but hereditary surnames are not considered to have been common place until the late 1200's.

      William Camden wrote in Remaines of a Greater Work Concerning Britaine: (1586)
      About the year 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 Frebchified . . . by the French and was 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.

Categories of Names
      Some surnames were derived from a man's Occupation (Carpenter, Taylor, Brewer, Mason), a practice that was commonplace by the end of the 14th century.  Place names reflected a location of residence and were also commonly used (Hill, Brook, Forrest, Dale) as a basis for the surname, for reasons that can be easily understood.  Some place names are a little cryptic, such as Chevrolet, the French place name that means "little goat."  The name referred to the picture painted on the outdoor sign ata roadside inn.  Pictures were used since few had reading skills, and in that era, chevrolet referred to as a place.
      Sometimes a man was most easily distinguished among his neighbors by a particular trait, or by some physical characteristic.  Nicknames that stuck became surnames -- some of which were so vicious, it is surprising they lasted at all.  Many of the names vulgar or scurrilous connotations were eventually changed by altering the spelling, or just dropped outright in favor of a more acceptable moniker.  About one-third of all US surnames are Patronymic in origin, and identified the first bearer of the name bu his father (or grandfather in the case of some Irish names).  Acquired Ornamental names were simply made up, and had no identification, generally much later than most surnames were adopted.  There are other sources as well, but most can be wedged into one of the above categories -- one way or another.

      When surnames were being adopted, many were the result of nicknames that were given by friends, relatives, or others.  Some nicknames were extremely unflatterring --- to the point of vulgarity --- but most of those have vanished, having been changed by descendants through spelling changes or simply by changing names after emigrating.
      Physical features that were prominant when surnames began to be adopted were also borrowed as an identifier (Long, Short, Beardsly, Stout) as were dispositions of the bearers (Gay, Moody, Sterne, Wise).  Sometimes the name told its own story (Lackland, Freeholder, Goodpasture, Upthegrove) and sometimes they might be selected to elicit envy or sympathy (Rich, Poor, Wise, Armstrong).

Patronymic and Matronymic
      Names that identify the father are termed Patroymic surnames.  Rarely, the name of the mother contributed the surname, whish is referred to as Matronymic origin.
      The Scandinavians added "Son" to identify John's son or Erik's son.  The German-French used the prefix "Fitz" to mean child of, as in Fitzpatrick, child of Patrick.  Many other cultures had their own prefixes to indicate of the father ('s name), including the Scots ('Mac Donald), Irish (O'Brien), Dutch ('Van' Buren), the French ('de'Gaulle), Germans ('Von'berger), Spanish/Italian ('Di' Tello) and the Arab-speaking nations ('ibn'Saud).  Sometimes the prefixes were attached to places rather than the father's name, such as traditional land holdings or estates.

Acquired and Ornamental
      Some names were simply added when those without a surname suddenly needed one.
      A lady - in - waiting for royalty might have had no traditional surname, but would require one if no lomger in the service of royalty.  In times of political turmoil, a deposed ruler might require a smaller staff, and long-time servants would find themselves among commoners -- and suddenly in need of a surname.  Names were sometimes invented as combinations of other words.

      Among the most common names are those specialty crafts and trades that were common during medievil times.  The Miller was essential for making flour from grain.  The sawyer cut timber into workable lengths, with the Carpenter could make specialty items for villagers.  Some names were a reflection of the place of employment rather than the job itself -- the name Abbott generally refers to the man who was in the employ of the abbey as a servant or other worker; the man named Bishop more likely worked at the house of theBishop rather than holding the position.  Once names were taken as titles that were originally less occupational, such as Mayor.  Some surname occupations are no longer in existence but were enough to identify a man in medievil days.

       The most widely found category is that which contains surnames derived from a place easily recognizable when surnames were adopted.  When a man left his homeland and moved to another country, he was destinguished from his neighbors by the identity of his homeland -- Walsh hailed from Wales, Noeman was from Normandy, Norris was Norwegian.  Some men were from cities well-enough known that the city was the distinguishing reference as in Paris.  Towns were used in the same fasion, as were major rivers and geographic features.  less obvious now are those names which identified a man by the location of his house.  John Atwood lived at the woods, but exactly which one has long since been lost.  Other names can be traced to the exact locale where the first to bear the name kept his residence.  As with the Patronymic designators, languages varied in the way a place was denoted, as in Dutch name van Gelder (from the country Gelder).  The Germans used Von as the French used de or De, and both often reflected aristocracy.

Sources include but are not limited to:
  *  American Surnames by Elsdon C. Smith, Baltiomre, 1969 ;
  *  A Dictionary of Surnames, by Patrick Hamks and Flavia Hodges, New York, 1994 ;
  *  Family Names : How Our Surnames Came To America, by J.N. Hook, New York, 1982.



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