The Origin of Surnames
Where does your last name come from? When and how did it appear? What were its origins and meanings? Any aspiring genealogist is inevitably passionate about their surname: the family name is essential as an essential element to track down in any Genealogical research, whether in the archives (civil status, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates ...), directories or tombstones.
What is the Origin of My Last Name?
First thing to know: all surnames are the same age. Eh yes! Imagine that they are all 1,000 years old! Our ancestors bore a single baptismal name until the demographic explosion of the eleventh and twelfth century, which falls into the times of the Middle Ages.
The Guillaume/William, Martin, Gautier and Pierre populated the villages, so it was difficult to navigate. In a spontaneous and completely disorganized way, our ancestors began to give themselves nicknames to find their bearings which became established over time and became hereditary, giving birth to our surnames.
From this, we can take four lessons relating to the origin of surnames:
- The birth of surnames was a spontaneous and anarchic phenomenon throughout Europe and falls outside legislative or administrative framework. You will probably never find the first ancestor bearing your surname.
- The illiteracy of the time did not allow a well-established spelling for surnames. Their use was above all oral, so that their sonorities evolved and varied according to the dialect or patois practiced in specific regions.
- These nicknames were individual. Each member of your family could have a different name or multiple names in their lifetime.
- Nobody chose their own name: these were given by neighbors and thirds, which associated them with some form of irony!
What Does My Last Name Mean?
In order to understand the meaning of a family name and its etymological origin, it’s necessary to look at its region of origin to understand which dialect or patois. You have every interest in searching the archives for the old forms. If you are looking for the etymology of "Delaplace" for example, you can search for "Laplace" or "Delaplasse". In short, all the variations are possible.
Surnames were seen as spelled according to the writers of acts: judges, notaries, priests, mayors ... In their vast majority our ancestors were illiterate and remained unable to spell their own name, so that you can find, for a distant ancestor, the same name spelled of three or four different ways. It will be around 1880, during the creation of the family booklets, registers and indexes along with the period of generalization of the literacy that their spelling begins to settle definitively.
The Different Categories of Surnames
Although it is difficult to study surnames etymologically, we can refer to the categories to which they belong in order to understand their origin.
Names from the Same Baptism
The majority of names come from those worn by the saints, our society having been essentially and for a long time deeply religious. Thus, we can list:
- Biblical names like David or Adam ...
- The names taken from the gospels of Hebrew or Greek origin, like André, Jacques, Jean ...
- The names of Roman or Latin origin carried by saints like Séverin, Martin ...
- Names of Germanic origin also worn by saints like Guillaume, Bertrand, Bernard ...
Names related to the physical
We find there the names characterizing body size, hair and skin color such as Petit, Lebrun, Short, Long, etc.
Names related to the profession
There are many names for a profession, a function or a social position such as Baker, Cook, Fisher, Carpenter. This blog further explains surnames as they relate to occupations.
Names related to characterThese designate the traits of a person’s character as Gentil, Lebon, Klump, Armstrong, Baldwin, etc.
Names evoking geographic originsMany names are inspired by countries, provinces or regions like Langlais, Pagnol, Lenormand, Deslandes, Washington
Names evoking a cityOr communities such as Rouen, Deneuville, Toulouse, Dallas, Nottingham, York, Berlin
Names evoking other placesLike the name of the hamlets, estates or farms like Lameloise, Brandicourt ... These were used by the inhabitants of the collective area to designate the inhabitants of the nearby gaps.
The names "matronyms"A Matronym is a name taken by a woman (a widow for example) and is typically that of their mother’s or another maternal ancestor’s maiden name. This isn’t overly common.
How Many Family Names are There?
To count the number of surnames around the world would be almost impossible to accurately determine.
To provide a variety and visual how differently surnames change from region to region throughout Europe, here is a collection of common surnames.
Common European surnames from various regions
| Smith |
| Müller, |
| Thomas |
| Murphy |
| García |
| Andersson |
| Nowak |
Surnames in the United States
Looking at the table for common European surnames, you might recognize these for ancestors and families in the United States.
We know that the United States was originally founded by the pilgrims who traveled from England followed by people from all over Europe. Immigration started as soon as the colonies and eventually the new nation was established.
Once a family arrived in the United States, it wasn’t always uncommon for a family to change their name after emigration processing. Families may have changed or altered their last name to better fit in with their new communities or be easier to understand.
It’s also not uncommon for certain towns and cities to have a population of a certain surname region. For example, people residing in Minnesota and Wisconsin are typically descendants of Scandinavian settlers. Places throughout the midwest can contribute their population by German, Irish and British settlers.
New Orleans, Louisiana was a common place for French settlers.
When the Spanish settlers arrived, they occupied areas of Florida, Texas, New Mexico, southern Arizona, and the California coast.