Have you ever wondered about the meaning of your last name or where your family came from? What your ancestors did or where they lived? Surnames -- our last names -- tell a story about our family, one handed down for hundreds of years. By tracing the possible origin of your last name, you can learn more about the medieval ancestors who first bore the last name and, ultimately, handed it down to you. Below you will find the most common surname used today.
The Most Common Surnames Used Today
of a Surname
by: Suzanne McVetty
A surname, or family name, can be defined as a legal identification tag which is transmitted by family members from generation to generation. The use of a surname is a comparatively recent phenomenon.1 Surnames were adopted in order to legally distinguish two individuals with the same given name. By surname, we mean a fixed name by which that particular individual is known.2
Different areas of the world adopted surnames at different periods in time. For example, surnames were commonly used two thousand years ago in areas occupied or influenced by the Romans. Other areas of the world were slower to begin using surnames, but they were coming into regular use by the time of the Middle Ages, first by the nobility, then by the gentry. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland was one of the first countries to adopt hereditary surnames, and Irish surnames are found as early as the tenth century.3
Origins of Surnames
Surnames are generally derived from one of four sources: the name of the person's father (patronymic), the person's locality, the person's occupation, or a descriptive nickname for the person. When they were created, they answered one of the following questions: Who is this person's father? Where is this person from? What does this person do for a living? What is his or her most prominent feature?
The patronymic name suggests the name of the father or grandfather by the use of some form of "of." In Ireland, "Mac" means "son of," while "O" means "grandson of." When "d" or "di" is found in an Italian surname, it signifies "son of." In Czechoslovakia, Pavlov is the "son of Paul." This naming pattern can be seen clearly in Sweden, where each subsequent generation followed suit: Hans Peterson would be the son of Peter; Hans Peterson's son would be called Jan Hansen. (On the female side, the daughter of Hans would be called Hansdotter.) A similar situation can be found in the New World, in naming patterns in Dutch New Amsterdam.4 Some common patronymics are Robertson, Anderson, Williamson, and Johnson.
Place names were often taken as a surname. They were derived from the name of the place where one resided or from a description of the place. Mokotoff is from the Russian village of Mokotow; the Irish Slattery is originally from Ballyslattery in east County Clare. More than half the English surnames used today derive from geographic descriptions, such as Churchill. Various suffixes which indicate a topographical feature are lee (meadow), bank, don (town), field, house, and thorp (village).
Occupations also helped distinguish one person from another. John Miller may have owned the mill in the same town where John Smith was the local blacksmith. Bedell was the policeman of the village; Fletcher was the arrow-maker. You will often find names which describe ancestors' vocations, such as Baker, Shepherd, Carpenter, and Wright.
Sometimes nicknames became surnames. These types of surnames were often used to describe something unusual about an ancestor's physique. Small and Petit are obvious examples, as is Blackbeard.
To read more please visit http://www.last-names.net/Articles/Anatomy.asp .
Dee Pavey USGenWeb Kidz Project Coordinator.