Tuesday, September 18, 2012

SURNAMES in Family History


Image Wikipedia ©©

'What's in a name?' Juliet exclaimed, to her star - crossed lover, Romeo, in a bid to convince him that it mattered not what one's family name was. What Juliet was saying was, that whether a Montague or Capulet, and despite the warring between the bearers of these surnames, she loved Romeo for the person he was. 'That what we call a Rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.'  

Image Flickr Public Domain ©©
Poor Juliet Capulet was ill fated as a lover, Her thwarted love life arose because of  her surname and her family history - the long running conflict between the Capulet and Montague families!  Of course we know that William Shakespeare wrote his play 'Romeo and Juliet' as fiction, however there is no denying that the significance of a surname to which Shakespeare alludes, is a reflection of real life. 'What's in a name?" This question posed to family historians, would be answered inevitably, as 'the entire family tree'. The humble surname, which received such contempt from young Juliet, is the family historian's single most valuable means of identifying ancestry. Family historians trace, among other things, Surnames which have been handed down from generation to generation, thus allowing us to identify our ancestors.

Image Flickr Public Domain ©©


Once upon a time there were no surnames. People lived in small communities, and were known only by a single name. Because communities were small, the likelihood of two or more people possessing the same name was rare. Many of those ancient first names have survived and can be found in our own families.. My maternal grandmother's name of Hilda was an ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic name meaning 'battle'. The old Anglo-Saxon name of Aelfraed, meaning 'aelf '- elf and 'raed' - counsel, endured to become the very popular name of Alfred. But imagine searching the census records today for Hilda from Nottinghamshire or Alfred from Northumberland, with no other mean of identification! 

Alfred the Great Image Wikipedia ©©

In ancient and smaller communities, first names sufficed.  As communities expanded and people become more transient, identification by a single name became confusing. Aelfraed? Which Aelfraed? People began to adorn names with a means of identification which described a particular person by some fact about their life. For example, Aelfraed who was the son of Cuthbert became known as Aelfraed Cuthbertson. Aelfraed who dwelled by a stream was perhaps bequeathed Brook as an identifying name, Aelfraed who had black hair might have been known as Aelfraed Black, and the first Aelfraed Baker was most likely a producer of bread.

The introduction of surnames began in many countries, for the purpose of census taking. In China, in about 2852 BC, the Emperor Fu Xi instituted a system of matrilineal naming, for the intent of conducting a census. Descent through patrilineal naming eventually replaced the matrilineal reference of family name  in China. The Ancient Greeks often used place of origin in names, or clan names, as did the Romans, for the purpose of identification.  (See below the family tree of the Roman Scipio family.)

Family Tree of  the Scippio-Paullus-Gracchus Family (all dates BC) Image Wikimedia ©©

In Japan, surnames were only afforded to members of nobility until the 1800's. Japanese family names  are, along with the family names of many Asian countries, written first, rather than last -  which is the usual practise in European and Western naming systems. Since much Asian writing is written in vertical form, the surname is often referred to as the upper name.

Japanese Scrip Image Wikipedia ©©

Early Norwegian surnames were, for the most part, patronymic, (passed on from father to son) however, unlike with other European naming systems, an hereditary surname was not passed on from one generation to the next until 1923 when fixed surnames were introduced in Norway. Researching Norwegian family history prior to 1923 is a challenge. A son took his father's Christian name as a surname with 'son of' or 'sen' added to it. Thus, Jens the son of Gulbrand Christiansen would be called Jens Gulbrandsen. We can assume that Jens was not the eldest son who would have been named Christian Gulbrandsen. Daughters added the suffix 'dattir'. Mother's names could be substituted for a surname as well so it is less easy to trace Norwegian families through surnames. Below is an example of Norwegian surname practice until 1923. An interesting surname tradition in Norway also, was the use of 'farm names' as surnames. If a family lived and worked on a farm named Hummelsted, they might adopt the name of the farm as their surname. Before you think that this makes searching for family easier, bear in mind that if Norwegian families moved to a different farm, they changed the family name to that of their new place of residence.

Generation 1      Gulbrand CHRISTIANSEN
First son   =       Christian GULBRANDSEN
Second son =     Jens GULBRANDSEN
First Daughter = Anna GULBRANDDATTIR (or a girl might take her mothers Christian name as a surname)

Generation 2    Jens GULBRANDSEN*
First son =         Gulbrand JENSEN
Second Son =    Jens JENSON
First daughter = Agnes JENSDATTIR

*If Jens Gulbrandsen began working on a farm named Hummeldalen he could very well be known henceforth as Jens Hummeldalen.
A Farm in Western Norway c 1890 Image Wikipedia ©©
Ireland was the first of the European nations to use hereditary surnames. Irish family names  are a testament to Irish history dating back to the  Celtic High Kings. Names usually consisted of the prefix "O" or "Mc" to denote a son or daughter of : eg O'Reilly, O'Brien, McCleary *, McDade * and although passed on from one generation to another they  did not become fixed hereditary names until around the 11th century.        * These surnames are in my own Irish ancestry.

 Example 1.    Aengus (Father)
            Connor mac AENGUS (Son)

Example 2.      Dairmuid
           Cormack O' DAIRMUID

Image Wikipedia ©©
The introduction of surnames in England is usually accredited to the arrival of the Normans. The first evidence of the use of surnames in England can be seen in the Domesday Book; the great census conducted by William the Conqueror in 1086. At this time, surnames were only used by gentry. The French who had accompanied King William to England affixed the prefix 'de' commonly  to their place of origin. These became, what is known as territorial names. Fitz was another prefix adopted by the French to signify son of or daughter of, and used by members of nobility. eg FitzWilliam, FitzWalter. The French Revolution witnessed the dropping of the 'de' from many aristocratic names leaving deNeville as Neville and de Percy as Percy, for example. It is more common to find names still employing the prefix 'de' in England than it is in France today.

Coat of Arms Henry de Percy 4th Earl of Northumberland ©© Wikipedia
By the 15th century, most people in Britain had adopted the use of surnames as identification, although many Welsh and Scottish folk did not use family names until later than this. Some Scottish surnames were in use as early as the 12th century, however most commoners did not adopt family or last names until the 18th century. The Scottish surnames with which we are most familiar ( eg MacDonald, MacKenzie, Macleod) are the patronymic names which originated to identify the sons of fathers, using the prefix 'son' or 'Mac'. Prior to fixed surnames becoming a standard practice in Scotland, the naming system was similar to that of  Norwegian convention. Scottish surnames bear evidence, as do British, of external influences - the migration of the Irish to Scotland, migration of the Picts, Norsemen and Anglo - Saxons as well as the many European refugees who flocked to Scotland or who passed through Scotland on their way to America. 

European Refugees Image ©©
Many refugees were forced to anglicize their names when they reached Scotland. My own Lithuanian great Uncle, Antonus Usitila was difficult to trace because I knew him as Andrew Smith. The most well recognised form of surname in Scotland is, of course,  the Clan name, which includes surnames such as  Campbell, Donald, Gregor, Stewart, Bruce and Grant. A common misconception regarding Clan names is that everyone who bears such a surname is related to a Clan chief. This is not so, however,  as clanship was actually more to do with protection than kinship relationships so many highlanders adopted the name of a powerful chief in order to secure wardship. This is where DNA testing becomes useful. I have proved descent from the Campbell Clan through DNA analysis.

Example of  the Scottish surname system prior to adopting fixed surnames.


One of the MacDonald Coat of Arms Image Wikipedia ©©
If you have researched Welsh ancestry you might be aware that Wales seems to have a limited number of surnames and many people who share them. This has eventuated as a result of the ancient Welsh Patronymic naming system where a son adopted his father's name prefixed by 'ap' or 'ab' meaning son of. In the instance of a daughter the prefix 'ferch' would have been used. It was common practice for a person's name to ascribe to several generations of family. For example Daffyd ap Evan ap Morgan ap Owen. During the reign of King Henry XIII, the Welsh government became incorporated into the British  government and the tradition of surnames for members of Welsh gentry became popular. This witnessed the beginning of the end for the Welsh patronymic naming system as the use of surnames caught on among the common folk. Being a relatively small population, however, meant that the scope for surnames was also meagre. Many new surnames were created by combining the prefix ab or ap with a name, hence ApRhys eventually morphed into Preece or Rhys.  Ab Evan became Bevan and so on. The letter 'S' was also added to first names to become surnames such as Evans, Williams, Jones, Griffiths and Owens.

Arms of Llyewyn Wales

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Every country has its own peculiar naming traditions, and the origins of surnames is quite fascinating. For the purpose of this blog I am will expand further on the origins of surnames from English speaking countries, in particular Britain.


Patronymic, Matronymic or Ancestral Surnames: These are surnames which have been passed on from the father or  mother to sons and daughters and often originate mainly from from male names. Adamson, Benson, Campbell, Douglas, Evans, Ferguson, FitzWalter,  Griffiths, Haroldson, Jackson, Johnson, Jenkinson, (Jenkins being a pet form of the name John), Griffiths, MacDonald, Morgan, Owens, O'Reilly, Petersen, Stewart, Williams, Williamson are all surnames derived from male names.

Surnames derived from Places or Localities: Many surnames are what is known as Locative surnames. These names reflect the places where people lived or where they came from - localities, ( ie towns, manorial estates, castles, and geographical descriptions of physical aspects of the landscape itself. The simplest form of locative surname is that which describes the physical location. Thomas who lives by a lake would become known as Thomas Lake. In the same way you might find Thomas Marsh, Thomas Brook, Thomas Hill, Thomas Wood or Thomas Cliff, Fields, Grove or Dunlop ( a muddy field). Often these locative surnames had prefixes or suffixes added to them or were double barrelled n( a ames. Examples of  such surnames are Woodland, Ashwood, Ashley,  Ashleigh (leigh =  a clearing), Underwood, Cartwright and Waterman. Other popular endings are 'field', 'fort', 'den', 'well', 'borough' and 'brook'.

Surnames also took their derivation from actual Place names. London, Taunton, Flint, Windsor and Hamilton are examples of these types of locative surnames.

A person who lived by a lake might be called by the surname 'Lake'. The Narrows, Lake St. Charles Image Wikipedia ©©
Surnames derived from occupations:  These surnames come from occupations or social position. Archer, Brewer, Bailey ( from bailiff), , Butcher, Baker, Baxter (a female baker), Cooper (a barrel maker), Carpenter, Carter (a person who made carts), Clarke, Cook, Farmer (can derive from  a farmer or a 'fermier' who was a tax collector in the Middle Ages), Fisher, Fowler (a person who caught birds), Gardener/Gardiner, Hunter, Hawkins, Judge, Knight, proctor (a steward), Shepherd, Smith (blacksmith), Tailor/Taylor, Thatcher, Turner (a man who turned wood on a lathe), Waterman, Webster (a female weaver) Weaver.
Undoubtedly, surnames which derive from occupations are fascinating as they allow us a glimpse into the working lives of our ancestors. The name Leach in my own family, for example,  implies that somewhere in my ancient  ancestry was quite likely a doctor. Some occupational surnames are less obvious to us today as having origins in the employment of an ancestor.  The English language has evolved over time and occupations have changed since industrialisation. Many old occupations simply do not exist anymore. You might not recognise today, that  Chandler comes from a person who was a candle maker, or that Fletcher means a maker of arrows. It requires some understanding of what types of occupations were relevant in the times when surnames first became a part of common usage.
Blacksmith's Forge Image Wikipedia ©©

Surnames which describe person characteristics: These names are possibly the most personally informative surnames as they imply  actual physical descriptions of attributes of the first ancestor to bear the name.  Hence they are known as descriptive surnames.  John Stout was not likely to have been a thin man. White, Black, Brown and Red leave little to the imagination as to the colour hair of an ancestor and Little, Strong, Tallman and Wise are evidence of the stature and intelligence of our ancestors. Scottish names, although physically descriptive may not be as obvious, as is a name such as Armstrong. Campbell is an example of a Scottish clan name which is also descriptive, meaning 'one who has a crooked mouth'. If your ancestor was a Puttock, then you may have to come to terms with the fact that he was regarded as being greedy. The name Young most likely does not refer to eternal youth, but the first John Young was probably the son of an older John , as in John the Younger. Don't panic if your ancestor was Thomas Longbottom, however. Let me assure you that although Thomas may sound somewhat strange in shape, this surname in fact, is a place name, referring to one who lived in a dell or valley.

The Surname Longbottom Image Wikipedia ©©

Surname origins are intriguing. Spending the time to research your family names can be very rewarding and you may discover more about ancestors than you expected to. It is important to thoroughly research your surnames however. Don't assume that your long line of Daft family come from a stupid ancestor because you will probably discover that 'daft' actually described a meek and gentle person in medieval times.

I have to wonder whether Shakespeare knew more of the origins of surnames than he has been given credit for in his famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The surname Capulet is an old English /French name referring to one who dwells in a wooded area beside a Chapel. This, to me, lends an air of romance to Juliet's character. So, what of Romeo, then,  with his surname of Montague? The name Montague originates in France from the old French words Mont Agin (Montagne) meaning mountain. What name, more a symbol of strength, than a tall mountain for Romeo? Or was a mountain a metaphor for their insurmountable love?

Clearly there was more to Mr Shakespeare than an ancestor who fiercely brandished a weapon, when he wrote those infamous words, "What's in a name?"  And, given that 'that what we call a rose ... would smell as sweet'  referred less to a flower, than a grand joke on the playwright's part, since he was referring to the stinking open sewer outside the Rose Theatre where his play was performed, who knows where the origin of the surname Rose lies?

Image Wikipedia ©©


  • www.scotlands people.gov.uk 
  • www.thebritishsurnames.co.uk
  • www.surnamedb.com
  • www.houseofnames.com
  • www.wikipedia.org
  • www.namesbehindthenames.com 
  • www,ancestry,com
  • www.archives.com
  • www.ancestralscotland.com
  • www.genealogyabout.com
  • www.behindthename.com
  • J W Freeman, 'Discovering Surnames' , 2008
  • George Fraser Black , 'Surnames of Scotland, their origin, meaning and history' , 1946


  1. Super post as always. Congrats, Sharn.

  2. Fascinating post Sharn. Much to digest and learn from. Thanks.

  3. Really interesting! Well done! Beautiful post in every way!
    irish surnames

  4. I have been unable to find anything on the Frambes surname before 1723, could anyone please help.