Have you ever been curious as to the origin and meaning of your surname? I have, which led me to write this blog. The short answer is – surname origins and meanings are complicated, very complicated. Different cultures around the world have very different traditions with respect to surnames. In this blog, I have attempted to present the information in an organized and logical way.
Generally, a surname is a family name that is added to one’s given, or first name. It is given to one’s children and passed to succeeding generations. In most Western Hemisphere countries, such as the US, the surname, or family name, is the last name. For example, Lawrence is my given name and Jacob is my surname. In some countries, such as China and Korea, however, the surname comes before the given name. To complicate matters further, in most Spanish-speaking countries it is typical for people to retain the surnames of both the mother’s and father’s family, i.e. Jose Rodriquez [Y] Hernandez. Finally, in some parts of Asia and East Africa surnames are not used at all. To simplify matters, somewhat I will be discussing customs prevalent in the US and Western Europe unless otherwise specified.
The concept of a surname can be traced back to the Middle Ages. It had often become confusing when too many people had the same first name in a particular locale. Thus, John, who was a blacksmith, became John Smith, while John, who made clothes, became John Tailor or Taylor.
My research disclosed the following salient points of information:
- The University of West England conducted a comprehensive study of the history of surnames in Great Britain from the 11th through 19th Centuries. The survey’s findings were published in the Oxford English Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland in 2016. Among the major findings:
a. Irish surnames are the oldest in Europe. The first recorded surname was O Cleirigh. The death of one Tigherneach Ua O Cleirigh, Lord of Aidhne was recorded in 916.
b. As we know, the Irish commonly use surname prefixes. These may or may not be attached to the main name. Thus, we have the surnames “O’Brien” or “MacMillan.”
c. In England, surnames originated circa 1086 following the Norman Conquest. Many Normans used a “territorial surname” by simply attaching the prefix “de” to their town of origin in France, for example, Pierre de Lyon. As one might expect, the trend began among the nobility and gradually spread to other classes.
d. Many English would employ occupational or territorial surnames, such as John Chandler, John Butcher, John Hill, or John Meadows.
2. Traditionally, it has been customary for the wife to assume her husband’s surname, but in recent years this custom has been relaxed due to PC. Occasionally, a wife will not change her name, or, will use both surnames with a hyphen. According to Wikipedia the first woman in the US to retain her maiden name was one Lucy Stone in 1855. The best current estimate of wives who take the husband’s surname is 80%.
3. In the US:
a. Approximately 50% of the population has one of only 1,700 surnames. As you could probably guess, Smith is the most common, with about 1%. Rounding out the top five, in order, are Johnson, Williams, Brown and Jones.
b. Many names are corruptions of European names due to misspelling, mispronunciation, or other causes during the immigration process. A common misconception is that these changes typically occurred upon entry at Ellis Island. Many family legends insist that the clerk gave their ancestor a name based on his home town, (John London), trade (John Baker), or a physical characteristic (John Short). Possibly, but, in point of fact, these changes could also have and often did occur at the country of origin or at any waypoint. Consider that the clerk at Ellis Island was working from a passenger list that had been developed at the port of origin. Also, during the peak of foreign immigration (1894-1924) about one-third of the immigration inspectors spoke three or more languages. Furthermore, interpreters were often available as well. So, although they could have made a copying error, it would have been more likely that the name changes would have occurred elsewhere.
c. In some cases family members arriving at different times ended up with different spellings of the same surname. These differences may or may not have been rectified by descendants. I have personal knowledge of a family situation such as this.
d. It was common for immigrants to Americanize their names. Reasons for this included patriotism, a desire to assimilate or a wish to avoid discrimination. Many immigrants were so happy to be here they wanted a clean break, a fresh start. One way to accomplish this was to take a new American name or Americanize their original one. Thus, “Goldschmidt” could become “Goldsmith” or just “Gold.” Many names, especially Eastern European names, which tended to be long on consonants and short on vowels, were too difficult to pronounce and spell. This would instantly identify the person as an immigrant and could cause difficulties or embarrassment at work or at the children’s school. So, a name like Zymancwiecz or Smirnoff could become Zell or Smiley. Finally, and perhaps most common, was to avoid discrimination. Virtually all ethnic groups faced discrimination to some degree. In those pre-PC days, landlords and employers made no secret about discriminating against certain ethnic or religious groups. Thus John O’Day would become John Day, and Greenbaum might become Green.
e. Other reasons for incorrect names: disguising oneself by using a fictitious name or another person’s name; using the name of a step-father instead of biological father, or using a nickname or a maiden name.
4. Other countries’ customs:
a. In China, legend has it that the origin of surnames was a decree by Emperor Fu Xi in 2852 BCE. His purpose was to facilitate census-taking.
b. In Japan, surnames were uncommon before the 19th century, except among the aristocracy.
c. Ancient Greeks used identifiers, such as “son of” or clan or descendant identities. For instance, Alexander the Great was also known as Alexander Heracleides (as a descendant of Heracles).
As I said, one’s surname often provides clues as to one’s background or place of origin. For example, names such as Farmer, Thatcher, or Smith would be strong indications of a forebear’s occupation. Names such as Glen, Forrest, or Mountain would be obvious indicators of locale. President Dwight Eisenhower was likely descended from a person whose occupation was an iron cutter in Germany (“Eisen” means iron in German, and “hower” was likely a derivative of “hewer,” which means one who cuts wood, metal or other materials).
Many people’s surnames are actual cities in Europe or derivatives of such indicating from whence they emigrated. Some names indicate patronage (Hickman, Johnson). Many Jewish names have biblical or holy references, for example, Cohen, Kagan, Levy, and my own surname, Jacob. Many Irish or Scotch surnames are derived from their ancestor’s clan (Macdonald, Forbes, etc.). Many African Americans carry the names of Southern plantation owners. The immortal Muhammed Ali, a Louisville native, derided his birth surname, Clay, as a “slave name.” He was probably correct, as the name “Clay” is a prominent name in Kentucky aristocracy.
If nothing else, I hope this blog gets you thinking about the origins and meaning of your own name. Let me know if you find anything interesting.