Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Origins of Surnames

I became interested a few months ago in finding the derivation of common surnames. Little did I know that there is much more than a blogpost or two on this subject. I read a number of internet articles and essays and culled a few of the facts I found most interesting. I intermingled facts and tidbits from the sources too much to include quotes, so I will cite names of the sources at the end of this post, and you can "google" or "dogpile" them easily enough if you want more information.

I will not go into the "how" of the custom of using surnames although much has been written on that topic. Suffice it to say that a surname, also known as a last name or family name, is a fixed name shared in common with the members of a family and is passed down from generation to generation. The use of a surname is relatively new in history and was adopted in order to legally distinguish two individuals with the same first name. For the purpose of this short essay, I will only categorize sources of surnames and give a few examples of each.

Nicknames given by neighbors:
Bright. Reid - red, ruddy complexion or red hair. Stout - Body size. Small - Body size. Armstrong - strong arms. Sharpe - sharp, smart.

Dwelling place: Hill, Woods, KirkPatrick - Church (kirk) of St. Patrick. Cliff - steep hill. Fairholm - the fair island. Ashley - field surrounded by ash trees .

Occupation: Smith, Marshall, Webster, Weaver, Napier (in chargeof the table linen at a royal estate), Cooper (makes or repairs casks or barrels). Wagner or Waggoner - wagon maker. Knight - knighthood conferred by the king. Smith - blacksmith. Powers - poor or taken a vow of poverty.

Paternity: The largest category of name-origins seems to be those indicating paternity. Of course, even today we often indicate a person's paternity (or maternity) to be sure listeners know of whom we speak. I might say, "Hannah (you know, Jennifer's daughter) said....." or "Jack's son told me the other day...."

  • Surnames ending with -son or -sen obviously mean "son of--" (English, Irish, German)
  • Surnames ending with -es or -ez are Spanish or Portuguese for "son of--"
  • Those ending with -wicz or -sky (Polish), and -witz (Russian), likewise mean "descendant of" the Welsh use an appended -s in the same way.
  • -ing, Teutonic, denoting progeny, was affixed by the Anglo-Saxons to the father's name as a surname for the son, as Cuthing the son of Cuth, Whiting the Fair offspring, Browning the dark offspring.
  • -An, -Kin, -kind, -ling, -let, -et, -ot, -cic, -cock, are all diminutives used at the ends of first names to indicate "child of-"
  • Those beginning with Mac- (Scottish), d'- or di- (Italian) also mean "son of--". (One or more generations down the line, the Irish use O'- to denote "grandson or descendent of -")
  • Gin-, in Gaelic, signifies to beget, so they appended these letter to indicate "progeny of-"
  • Names starting with Fitz- (old English) or Fils- (French) indicate the same relationship.
  • The Welsh, in like manner, prefixed Ap-, mab-, ab-, or vap- to the given or first name to denote son, as: David Ap Howell, David the son of Howell, later abbreviated into Powell. Evan AP Rhys, Evan the son of Rees, later shortened to Price. Richard Ap Evan, Richard the son of Evan, now Bevan. John Ap Hugh, John the son of Hugh, now Pugh.

As far as I can tell, none of these name-origin categories fit either my given surname or the one I took when I married almost 44 years ago, so obviously this is not a definitive work.

Primary sources I used for this post:

An Essay on the Origin and Import of Family Names by William Arthur, M.A., father of President Chester A. Arthur

Origin of Surnames by Kathi Reid

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

No comments: