Tuesday 3 March 2015

Origin of Surnames

I am taking a genealogy course right now called Introduction to One-Name Studies, from Pharos Teaching and Tutoring Limited. The purpose, for me at least, is to learn more about how to search for and compile information about the surnames in my family.

One can only go back so far, of course. We are restricted by the availability of records about people, usually terminating in the 1500s. We are also limited in our reviews by the way in which people spelled their names or, more to the point, how others spelled them when entering information into BMD registers or other official documents. I wrote about some of the ways my own surname was recorded in my post of May 13, 2014.

Of interest to many people, though, is how their families got their name in the first place. With my family, we can probably assume that, way back when, some ancestor was a sheep-herder. Where we got the double vowel is another question entirely.

There are many ways in which surnames came into use. In most of Europe naming systems are patronymic, that is, children are given the same surname as their father or at least named with respect to the father. For some common surnames such as Anderson or Thompson, both of which appear in my family tree, it seems obvious that a child might originally have been referenced as being the son of Andrew or Thomas. Many countries have specific endings for males or females: -sen and –datter for sons or daughters, respectively, in Denmark; -s, -se or –sen for children of either gender in the Netherlands; -wicz for sons or –ovna for daughters in Poland. Some names designated birth status. “Fitz” apparently preceded a name in France or Old England for children who were illegitimate – FitzGerald.

English names do not seem to designate between the sexes. My wife’s 4th great-grandmother’s last name, according to the parish records of the Shetland Islands, was Edwardsdaughter. a practice that may have come from the Viking settlers of the region.

Other surnames arose from: the occupation of an individual – Carpenter, Cooper or, yes, Shepherd; the location near where he lived – examples being Hill, Brook or York; or personal characteristics – Tall, Short or Smart.

The first group of people to use surnames was the nobility, mostly for describing where they were from or what lands they controlled. Surnames seem to have come into use following the Crusades or at least during the Middle Ages. Quite possibly, as population expanded significantly during this period, it became more necessary to differentiate people with the use of some description. A boy named John, whose father was William, became John, son of William or Williamson. A girl name Mary, whose father was a blacksmith, might be called Mary Smith. Her friend might be Mary Mason because her father worked as a stonecutter.

There is an interesting website called Behind the Name where one can search for the source and usage of a given surname. For example, one of my wife’s 3rd great-grandfathers was Alexander Jenkins. Jenkin is apparently “from the given name Jenkin, a medieval diminutive of Jen, itself a Middle English form of John.” So Jenkin might be Little John and Jenkins might be child of Little John? Jenkins is quite a common name – ranking number 83 out of 88,799 surnames on the 1990 USA census and 97 out of 500 on the 1991 England and Wales census.

The search for meanings and origins of family names can be both fascinating and frustrating. The farther one goes back, the more difficult it becomes to trace surnames but a real treat when you discover a new document that names a related individual.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.