Where Does My Last Name Come From?
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Most names used in the US today originate from other parts of the world as few of us can claim to be descended from the original inhabitants of this continent. As the first invaders and settlers were from Europe this article is focused on how names developed there.
European last names (Surnames) had many sources but can typically be put into four categories. Patronymic, occupational or status, nicknames and locative.
Patronymic names are those that identify with the father. As in the previously mentioned example of Neilson which began as Neil Son of Neil. Then when Neil junior has a son called John he may be known as John Neilson. There was no strict rule to this, and names were often adopted or dropped at will. So, it would not be odd for John Neilson’s son Neil to become Neil Johnson. This made perfect sense in smaller communities across Europe.
Some cultures used Matronymic names instead, taking their identifier from the mother, which is worth remembering if your family search takes you to Scandinavia, Eire, Cymru, Ukraine, or some parts of Asia. Researching the naming trend of the time period in the region before rushing head long into the record repositories is a good idea so that you don’t go barking up the wrong family tree.
Occupational names identify the bearer with the function they performed within the community or status. They are usually self-explanatory and are the most common type of surname. Here’s some examples: Archer, Baker, Broom, Tailor, Fisher, Faulkner, Gardener, Glover, Hunt, Potter, Weaver, Thatcher, Turner.
As some occupations have died out over time it’s easy to overlook the origins, especially where a variant has been developed. The surname Death for example could have originally belonged to an actor, minstrel or singer who played the part of “Death” so regularly in stories that it was adopted as their name and then passed on through the generations. Or “Death” could have been a nickname if the person was a cart bearer during the plague or the resident gravedigger.
Nicknames possibly developed before the use of surnames were even applied. First names were altered to retain an identifier as a population grew. In a small village that had little trade with outsiders there was no need for a last name because any individuals with the same first name like Thomas would have been given a nickname. It was very common for the first child to be named after their parents, so Thomas son of Thomas could be known as Tommy all his life.
But nicknames weren’t all based on a given name. Just like today, a name referring to their appearance, their walk, their job or the farm they were from could also be used instead of their original name. Examples are Little, Stern, Lovejoy, Short, Long.
Locative names are those that associated an individual with a specific location or a geographical feature. This sounds like a great clue for a family tree search until you learn a little more about how these names developed.
There are so many examples of locative names because there are so many places. There is also a disappointing side to this. Notably: If an ancestor could use the town of York as an identifying surname, so could everyone else that hails from there. Just because they then have the same last name of York does not necessarily mean they are related.
Names of villages, towns and Regions were either adopted by the individual or accidentally given by others to them. In the movie “The Godfather” the name Corleone was written by the immigration official for Vito Andolini who came from Corleone, Sicily. He used the name Corleone for the rest of his life and passed it onto his children. Of course, this is a fictional character, but this example clearly demonstrates how this could and did happen with real immigrants, many of whom could not speak English.
Famously in 1917, George V of England adopted the name “Windsor” from one of the Estates owned by the family to differentiate them from their Germanic relatives who were not looked upon kindly by the British populace during World War I. They were never known as their original Saxe-Coburg-Gotha ever again.
Names of houses, farms, land or manors were also used as surnames in the past. Names like Castle, Orchard, Fielding, Fenley, Underhill, and Lake are connected with geographical markers. With so many features in the landscape it’s impossible to trace your ancestor to the very first location. Looking for the very first recording of that surname in historical records though can help you home in on certain regions. It is unlikely someone with the name Fenley originated from a mountainous region for example.
If the study of names interests you more than tracing your family tree, there two terms to use when searching for courses. Onomastics and Etymology.
The study of names is called onomastics, it touches on linguistics, history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, philology and much more.
When people refer to the "meaning of a name", they are typically referring to the etymology, which is the original literal meaning.
Many top Universities offer online and in person courses for both these subjects.