Surnames are All About -- What?

surnamesFamily names or surnames all started in one of several different ways. In England the use of surnames did not start until the 1200s through the 1300s. In Ireland surnames started in 900 AD. Across other regions such as the Middle East and Asia there were many different methods of identifying a specific family or clan.

Many were first based on where a family or individual lived. It can be for the proper name of a village or region, however most likely it is a specific geographical feature such as a valley, mountain, hill, river, cliff, swamp or grassy plain. It help identify that person or family based on what they lived near. Locations could also include a man-made structure such as a church or school. The surname ‘Kershaw’ is an Old English term of “kirk”, which meant church and “sceaga” which meant ‘shaw’ (meaning thicket). So this surname referred to someone who lived near the “church-wood”. This does not apply just to European names, in Japan, a common surname is ‘Tanaka’ which literally means “dweller in the middle of rice fields”.

surname-be trueAnother common naming method for a family ties in with a person being the ‘son of’ or the ‘daughter of’ a certain individual. Many common surnames such as Dawson, Johnson, Wilson, Albertson, Ferguson, Petersen, Fitzgerald or O’Donald. Some daughter of names would be Marriott from Mary or Madison from Maud.

In the Spanish language the letters ‘ez’ were added to denote the son of, giving you Gonzalez, Jimenez, Rodriguez, Cortez, Estevez, Gomez, Fernandez and Hernandez to name a few.

Occupations for individuals was another major method of having a family name. You can recognize many such as Baker, Potter, Fisher, Cook, Farmer, Smith, Miller, Cooper and Weaver. Those spellings did get changed many times, like Baker could be changed to Baxter and Weaver to Webster.

The meaning of certain additions to a name such as ‘De’ in the traditional Norman-French culture historically has signaled ownership of lands and was traditionally therefore a mark of prestige.

surnames-treeEach region and culture has developed its own style and rules. Many of which have even changed in the 20th century. Many people who immigrated, changed the spelling of a family name to ‘fit in’ their new homeland.

Use the site on about Surnames to learn more about a specific family name.

Make sure you have a full list with its own file of each surname on your family tree.

Related genealogical blogs:

Surnames and More

Common Surnames

Extinct Family Names


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