Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Origin Of Surnames

Surnames originated in several ways. Some are derived from the Christian or proper name of the father, from the places they lived, from offices and professions, from personal peculiarities, from the performance of certain actions, and from accidental circumstances of every varied character.

Soon after Christianity took hold in Europe, people began taking names from the bible like John, James, Matthew, David, Peter, Mark, Aaron, Luke, Moses, and Malachi. As the families grew and the general population increased, the Johns, the Jameses, and the Peters became numerous. The need grew to differentiate between John who was the blacksmith and John who lived at the nearby woods and John, the father of the blacksmith. Other people would likely refer to John "the smith" or John "John's son", while the father might be called John the smith's father. The John residing near the woods, might be called John "of the woods". Or, if one might be referred to as "John the red" or "John the blond" if their hair color warranted. Names denoting complexion, color of hair and dress were somewhat common, such as Black, Blond, Brown, Gray, Grissel, Red, Rufus, Rous, Russel, Rothman, Ruddiman, Blacket or Blackhead, Whitelock, and Whitehead.

Surnames were generally derived from one of four sources:

  1. Patronymic (from the first name of father). Examples:

    • Johnson - son of John

    • Peterson - son of Peter (Swedish)

    • Petersen - son of Peter (Danish)

    • O'Brien - grandson of Brian (Ireland)

    • Mc- /Mac- - son of (Scottish)

    • d'- / di- - son of (Italian)

    • -ez / -es - son of (Spanish / Portuguese)

    • -wicz - son of (Poland)

    • Fitz- - son of (Old English - sometimes mistakenly associated with being an illegitimate)

  2. Lives near locality or place. Examples:

    • Mandeville - From Latin De Magna villa, of or from the great town.

    • Atwood - lived at the wood

    • Gates - Gate, in Scotland, means a road or way.

    • Ashley - field surrounded by ash trees

    • Ireland - someone who had previously lived in Ireland

    • Scott - someone who had previously lived in Scotland

  3. Occupation or social status. Examples:

    • Cooper - barrel maker

    • Baxter - baker

    • Webb or Webster - weaver, webster meaning a female weaver

    • Smith - blacksmith

    • Sumner - a summoner

    • Chamberlain - a steward

  4. Nicknames describing person or personality. Examples:

    • Reid - red, ruddy complexion or red hair

    • Hardy - of good health

    • Small - small stature

    • Armstrong - strong arms

    • Lowry - a crafty person, one who lowers contracts his brow; hence a 'lowry day'--cloudy.

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