A surname can reveal a wealth of information about your ancestors. It can help you pinpoint the region where they lived and even tell you about their occupation or physical appearance. There are four types of surname meaning: patronymic, place-name-related, occupation-related and descriptive. Knowing the meaning of your surname can help you discover important clues for further family history research.
A surname is a family name that distinguishes individuals from one another. It is sometimes combined with a given name to form a full or mononym. In addition, a last name can also be used as part of a nickname. For example, someone may be called Fox or Todd about a cunning animal. Surnames come in various forms, and many have interesting origins. Some people have been named for their occupations, places where they lived or even physical traits like little or small, strong or tall. Other names, such as Cruikshank and Pollard, describe a person’s appearance, such as crooked legs or a bald head. In other cases, a person might be given their surname due to a relationship with a particular father, such as Johnson, meaning ‘son of John’ or O’Brien and O’Shea, of Irish origin.
Others are based on place names and toponymic such as the suffixes -bo, -by, -her, -land, -rud, -stad or -vin for Scandinavian origin. Many cultures use a patronymic system for naming children after their fathers, while in other countries, it became customary for women to take their husband’s surnames after marriage. Nicknames such as Little, Pollard and Swift have also been turned into surnames. Ultimately, a surname meaning search can tell you much about your family history and help you determine where to begin your genealogical research.
Knowing your surname’s meaning can give clues about where your ancestors lived or worked and their relationship to one another. They may have chosen a surname that meant the place where they were born or their occupation, such as Johnson (son of John) or Smith (carpenter). Or they might have taken a surname that indicated the family name, such as MacDonald (daughter of Magnus) or Black (son of William). The meaning can also be discovered by looking at the names of relatives and friends – the more people you can identify who share the same surname, the more likely it is that the surname originated from that group. You can also look at surname study groups, which are groups devoted to studying the origins of a particular surname or group of names.
Another way to discover the meaning of your surname is to look for spelling variations. Taking a moment to check all possible spellings can break down those stubborn brick walls. Look for anglicized spellings, especially when searching church or government records. Look for alternate spellings adopted when an ancestor immigrated to America, such as Nelson and Nelson, Doerner and Durner or Turner and Turner. Also, look for surname variants used before an ancestor immigrated to America.
A surname is more than just a last name — it’s a window into the past. As a result, it’s not uncommon for names to change over time. One of the most common causes for spelling variations is phonetic substitutions. For example, a name that starts with the sound “k” may have also been spelled with a “g,” or an “i” could be spelled as an “e.” Another reason for surname variations is letter transpositions. It can occur when transcribing or indexing historical records. Other factors that can cause surname variations include occupational or geographical origins. For instance, if a father gave his sons an occupation-based name such as Mason, Carpenter, Cooper or Tailor, those children would adopt that same surname. It was common in the 17th and 18th centuries to pass along a mother’s maiden name when naming children so that some families would have two variations of the same surname.
Other reasons for surname variations are an ancestor’s personality. Often, flattering nicknames were given as surnames. For example, a person might be called Pollard (bald man), Longman (long-legged), Crippen (crooked legs) or Sharp (bold). During the medieval period, most people did not have family names and instead passed on their father’s surname upon marriage. It led to some strange surnames. Other surnames were based on physical appearance, and others reflected their temperaments.
Although we take a clinical approach to spelling today, our ancestors often wrote and recorded their names without asking how to spell them. It can cause some confusion in locating family members in old records. Use book indexes to look for a variety of spellings of your surname. Try to find the variants that sound most similar. Many registries provide Soundex searches that can help you locate family members with variations in the spelling of their surnames. A common variation in spelling is an accidental omission or addition of a letter, such as the silent “H” added to the beginning of a name such as Hoult or Hunt. Some names may also have a rhyming with another word, such as a surname like Smith that rhymes with a hammer. Other characters might have a descriptive meaning, such as Good fellow, derived from Middle English as a nickname for a companion or friend. Other surnames such as Cruikshank (crooked legs) or Pollard (bald head) reflect a physical characteristic of the person. Some people changed their surnames to fit in with the culture they were a part of, such as Irish immigrants who gave themselves Anglicized names. This practice of renaming is called Americanization. Many genealogists have found that an ancestor’s last name can tell them something important about their background.