Surname meanings can be one of the first clues to the origin, profession or family history of your forefathers. Unlocking the meanings of the surnames is not as difficult as you might think.
History of Surnames
The surname is the family name of an individual. In most cultures the surname is passed down from the father, and it may be placed at the end or the beginning of the names of the sons and daughters. For example, in European cultures the surname is typically the last name in a string of names such as John Joseph Adams Miller. This is in contrast to many Asian cultures where the surname is spoken as the first word in a person's name such as Yang Winsom.
Surnames have been passed down through the generations. The way the surname evolved was different in the various parts of the world.
- Asian historical writings and stories show us that the Chinese were one of the first cultures to adopt surnames. For the past 5,000 years or so, Chinese families have carried unique family surnames and passed them down through the generations.
- Europe didn't adopt surnames until the tenth or eleventh century with the families of nobility and gentry. The surname eventually spread to all classes of people in Europe.
- African and Middle Eastern surnames were frequently derived from the name of the community in which the person lived. Frequently the surname was enlarged or enhanced to describe the status or occupation of the person.
Surname meanings can be of special interest if you are tracing your family tree or working on a project showcasing a little of your family history. Your family's surname can be a clue to who is related to whom and provide a reflection on the life of the early generations of your family.Don't be dismayed if you find multiple spellings of your surname. It is not uncommon for a surname to take on multiple spellings or pronunciations. This is due, in large part, to several factors:
- There may have been no specific spelling of the name, leaving people to interpret the spelling on their own.
- The spelling of the name could have been changed as clerks and record keepers entered the name they heard, spelling it in a way which they felt was appropriate.
Determining Surname Meanings
Surnames were not all developed in the same way by all communities. The origin of a specific family name was basically from one of four factors:
- The first name of the father (patronymic)
- Where the person lived
- The occupation or status of the person
- A nickname which described a unique characteristic of the person
A patronymic origin means that the surname was derived from the first name of the father. The actual way the father's name was used differed from country to country. For example:
- Johns - son of John (English or German)
- Johnson - son of John (Swedish)
- Johnsen - son of John (Danish)
- Rodriguez - son of Rodrigo (Spanish)
- McNeil or MacNeil - son of Neil (Scottish)
- d' Georgio or di Georgio - son of Georgio (Italian)
A frequent source for surnames was the place where the person originated. The name could have been derived from the actual city name or merely reflect a well-known geographical aspect of the place. For example:
- Hammond - The town or house on the hill
- Kelly - A grove of hazel trees (Gaelic and Welsh) or a church (Celtic)
- D'Aubigine - From Aubigine France
- Olmstead - A place or town by the green oaks
- Kirkpatrick - A church (called a kirk) of St. Patrick
- Cliff - A steep hill
- Ashley - A field surrounded by ash trees
Occupation or Status
The occupation of an individual could have been the origin of their surname. For example:
- Thrasher - A person who thrashes grain
- Parker - The keeper of the park
- Wyman - A hunter (Dutch)
- Cooper - A barrel maker
- Wagner or Waggoner - A wagon maker
- Smith - A blacksmith
- Knight - A person with knighthood conferred by the king
Nicknames were frequently used as the basis for surnames. The nickname could have been a name by which the person was called or merely a descriptor of a distinctive physical or personality trait of the person. For example:
- Reinhart - A person with a pure heart
- Fairfax - A person with fair colored hair
- Delgado - A thin person
- Young - The younger of two people with the same "first" name
- Armstrong - A person with strong arms
- Sharpe - A sharp or smart person
Sources for Surname Meanings
Finding the surname meaning of a specific surname can usually be accomplished with the use of one of the many online surname dictionaries such as:
- YourDictionary - This easy-to-use online dictionary includes the etymology (origin) of the most common surnames.
- Ancestor Search - You can quickly initiate your search by selecting the first letter of the surname to search the etymology of European, Hispanic and Chinese last names.
- Family Education - After entering a last name, the system will search its database for the meaning, history and ethnic origin of your surname.
- Yutopian - This website provides a software program which you can download to determine the origin of a Chinese family name. The software also provides a feature which enables you to search for the English spelling of a Chinese name.
The meaning of a surname can provide a clue to information about your ancestors. The meanings are relatively easy to find and can be an excellent asset to a genealogy project or an adult's or child's family history project.