Your surname tells a rich and intriguing story. It may also reveal a physical trait or defining personality of your ancestors. Surnames fall into four categories: patronymic (derived from the father), occupational, nickname or place name. Sometimes surnames can be derived from specific groups such as clans and tribes. Others have descriptive meanings, such as a brook, field or river.
A surname is passed from parent to child over generations and is one of the key pieces in tracing your family history. Knowing your surname can help you answer important questions such as where your ancestors lived, what they did for a living, and how they looked hundreds of years ago. While the development of surnames occurred throughout most of the world by the Middle Ages, noble and royal families used them much earlier in some places. Originally, people were known by their first names and perhaps a designated name or description. Surnames were developed to distinguish people from others with the same first names and help them to keep track of their descendants.
Many surnames developed as occupational or trade last names, such as Smith (a blacksmith), Taylor (a builder) and Baker (someone who makes bread). Others developed as nicknames such as Armstrong (the strong man) and Bellamy (good friend). Still, others were patronymic, meaning they were named after a father or mother, such as Johnson, Robinson or Richardson. Many online surname origins websites and one-name studies can provide useful resources for researching your family’s name. These sites may include biographical information, pedigree charts and photos, family legends and stories, and maps of surname distribution across the globe. These sites also often contain links to free surname research tools such as the Modern Newspaper Index and the Marriages of the World. They also usually have password-protected areas that provide members access to additional family information and research. DNA tests that link a person’s Y-chromosome and surname can also help discover your ancestral origins.
Many suffixes add to or change the meaning of a root word. For example, the suffix -ness adds a sense of fullness to the noun beauty or the adjective ugly. However, there are also exceptions to this rule. When the suffix -ful is added to an adjective, it may suggest that something is very good or that someone is very careful. The suffix cock refers to a male chicken or rooster and is strictly a masculine word. Likewise, the suffix ton is a unit of weight. Ley is a common surname suffix found in many places throughout England. It may refer to a valley or river, an area of land used for farming or walking or playing sports, or it could mean a prehistoric track.
Generally, a suffix can only be added to a single family name. However, some rare instances exist of daughters being named after their mothers and adding the suffix Jr. (such as Santiago Juan Torres Rojas Jr). In most cases, a woman would take her husband’s surname after marriage and drop her surname. In such cases, the suffix can be added to the mother’s name or the father’s name, as in the case of Shurts.
A surname is a name that distinguishes you from other people, but it can also tell you a lot about your family history. It can be patronymic, reflecting a father’s or mother’s name. It can be geographic, indicating where your ancestors lived. It can also be occupational, revealing what your ancestors did for a living. Finally, it can be descriptive, describing a physical attribute or character trait.
Many common names derive from the father or mother’s given name, such as Jones or Smith. Others may be based on a job, like Black or Carpenter. And still, some come from a physical characteristic, such as Broadhead or Strong.
In some countries, the last name is based on the clan or tribe your ancestors belonged to. For example, in Uganda and Japan, the previous word is based on the family’s clan or village. Similarly, surnames in the United States often end with -son or -owski, signifying that your ancestors came from a particular place. These suffixes are used to distinguish between different people with the same surname and are a helpful tool for genealogists trying to identify their ancestors. Surnames with the suffix -land, -berg, -wald, -stadt, -stein, -dorf, -Baum, heim, and -reut indicate villages where your ancestors may have settled. If you are descended from German settlers, look for a surname ending in -thal or -wald.
Names can change within a person’s life, and the variation of surnames can reveal clues about where an ancestor was from. Etymologists and genealogists continue to study family names, their origins and meanings. Names were originally used to distinguish people and to identify them in a crowd. For example, a man named Tom might add a name to differentiate himself from other men with the same given name or to specify which Tom is being referred to in a conversation.
Most surnames began as nicknames or a diminutive form of a father’s or mother’s name. Some names also came from occupations or place names. For instance, last names based on occupations, such as blacksmith, were popular in Europe. Others, such as Hampshire, Beckham and Sutton, sprang from the names of towns or places. Often, a last name was derived from the name of a town’s founder or a royal estate such as Windsor Castle. As a result, old documents had a wide range of spellings and variations for family names. Spelling changes occurred for various reasons, such as ignorance (people didn’t always know how to spell their words) and transcribing errors caused by handwriting or transcription issues. Other spelling changes result from Anglicization when a character is changed to reflect the pronunciation or spelling of English words.