Monday, July 16, 2007

What's In A Name?

"WHEN the good King Philip of France had determined to seat a queen by his side on the throne, he sent embassadors to his neighbor, the King of Spain, and gave them authority to choose one of his two daughters for their sovereign.

They were struck with the beauty of the elder sister, and decided among themselves that, both on account of her age and her charms, she would be a fit bride for their master. But of a sudden their opinion was changed.

They had been told that the beauty was called Uracca, while the younger and less attractive sister was called Blanca. That name of Uracca destroyed all other charms; they abandoned their choice, and led the younger princess back with them to rule over France."

History has more than one such answer to the question,
"What's In A Name?"

Family names (hereditary names or surnames) originated at many different times in many different places. The modern family name is of medieval European origin and we can thank bureaucracies for its inception. As tax collectors, bailiffs, sheriffs, law enforcement and court officers needed a more precise form of identification of individuals, the surname was born.

For the most part, people did not have surnames in the 11th century (although some clan names existed, which later became family names, ex. Ireland). Most European surnames (England and France) took shape in the 13th and 14th centuries with almost all countries having surnames by the 15th century.

Family names can be classified into a small number of types according to their origin. Those types are patronymic and metronymic surnames, local surnames, occupational surnames, and surnames derived from nicknames.


The oldest and most frequent type of family name is the patronymic/metronymic name. These are names that were passed from father or mother to the son and are derived from a male or female Christian name.

Most patronymic names were formed by adding the suffix s or son to the Christian name as in Johns and Johnson, Roberts and Robertson, Williams and Williamson. Prefixes can be seen in the Scottish mac, mc MacDonald, McRoberts and the Irish O’Connell and O’Neill.

Metronymic, or family names derived from a female Christian name are more rare. They appear to be derived from the names of women who were widows for most of their lives or were heiresses in their own right. Examples of this naming system are Marguerite, Margetts, Margerison derived from Margery; Annis, Anness and Annison derived from Agnes; and Dysons from the ancient Dionisia.



Local surnames are derived from places and fall into two broad categories. The first category is topographic. A topographic surname is derived from a general descriptive reference to a feature of the landscape such as a hill, dale, ford, wood, or green.

A topographic surname can also refer to a specific river by its name or to a castle, city wall, abbey or church that are man made.


The second category under Local Surnames is toponymic surnames also called habitational names. These surnames are derived from named places such as names of counties, towns, villages, farmsteads, individual houses with signs on them, hamlets, etc. Examples would be London, York, Kent, and Lancaster.

Often it is difficult to determine if a name originate from a descriptive reference such as “(at) the broad ford’ or ‘(by) the red hill” or from an established name of a place such as Bradford or Redhill.


Occupational surnames refer directly to the occupation or trade of the original bearer of the name. For many of us buried within our surnames lies an inventory of the common trades of medieval Europe.

Some names are obvious; others have lost their meaning because the trade from which they derived their surname has lost its meaning. Obvious examples are Smith, Wright, Butcher, Farmer, Cook, Carpenter, Taylor, Hunt, Weaver, and Potter. Not as obvious are Cooper (barrel maker), Fletcher (arrow maker), Chapman (traveling street hawker – salesman), Lorimer (harness maker), and Souter (shoemaker).

Another category of occupational names referred to the calling by naming the principal object associated with the occupation such as the tools Axe, Pick, Daino (“fallow deer” denoting a deer hunter), or product such as Fromage.

Some of the original occupational names denoted a person’s job for the King or noblemen such as Gilly, Hawker, Forrester, and Falconer. These were the original government workers.

Occupational names also include names denoting status. Bachelor, Knight, and Squire denote a particular role in medieval society. Those with the surnames King, Prince, Duke, Earl, and Bishop most likely were not the holder of the rank in question, but rather a servant of the rank holder.


Physical features and behavioral characteristics form the basis for surnames that are derived from nicknames. Boy, could our ancestors be cruel and NOT politically correct when it came to attaching a nickname to some poor soul.

Some nicknames were actually complimentary as in Fairweather (sunny disposition), Fox (cunning), Lamb (gentle) and Makepeace (wise arbiter); others such as Cruikshanks (crooked legs), Cameron (crooked nose), Doolittle (lazy), Drinkwater (miserly), Gulliver (glutton), Blanchflower (an effeminate man), Gotobed (lazy person),and Campbell (wry or crooked mouth) were not. I am a Campbell and you can read more about them at my The Campbell's Are Coming blog post.

Surnames derived from nicknames are most typically concerned with some aspect of physical or character traits. Examples are Black, White, Whitehead, Grant (tall or large), Gray, Grealey (pock-marked face), Greathead, Moneypenny (richman or miser), Harsch (stern or severe man), Hasard (gambler), and Hasty (impetuous).

Some of these nicknames came about as the result of some incident or exploit probably only known to a very few people and long since forgotten. Two such nicknames are Death and Leggatt. What could have happened to cause such a nickname? We can only wonder.

Another group of nicknames commemorate either a characteristic action Wagstaff, Shakespeare, or a particular incident such as Tiplady. The origins of many of these may be obscene. In deference to Shakespeare, the name could also mean a man who goes into battle and stands at or near the front lines wildly shaking his spear.

As you can see from this brief overview of surnames, you will have to do a great deal of research on your individual name before you can definitively say what the derivation of that name may be.

Here are some interesting web sites on surnames:

The Guild of One-Name Studies
Surname Profiler
The Genealogist
Ancestry - Learning Center - Family Facts

REFERENCE LIST (a little light suggested reading):

Alvarez-Altman, Grace. 1978. Spanish Surnames In The Southwestern United States : A Dictionary. Woods, Richard Donovon.

Bardsley, Charles Wareing Endell. 1843-1898. A Dictionary Of English and Welsh Surnames : With Special American Instances. Heraldry Today.

----------. 1968. English Surnames; Their Sources and Significations 1843-1898. C. E. Tuttle Co.

Beider, Alexander. 1993. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames From the Russian Empire. Avotaynu, Inc.

Chao, Sheau-yueh J. 2000. In Search of Your Asian Roots. Genealogical Research on Chinese Surnames. Clearfield Co.

Cottle, Basil. 1967. The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames. Penguin.

Fucilla, Joseph Guerin. 1949. Our Italian Surnames. Chandler's Inc.

Gillis, I. V. 1939. Japanese Surnames 1875-1948 . Hwa Hsing Press.

Hanks, Patrick. Flavia Hodges. 1988. A Dictionary of Surnames. Oxford University Press.

Hoffman, William F. 1998. Polish Surnames : Origins and Meanings. Polish Genealogical Society of America.

Hook, J. N. 1913 c1982. Family Names : How Our Surnames Came To America. Macmillan ; Collier Macmillan.

Latham, Edward. 1990. A Dictionary of Nnames, Nicknames, and Surnames of Persons, Places, and Things. Omnigraphics.

----------. 1966. A Dictionary of Names, Nicknames, and Surnames of Persons, Places and Things. Republished byGale Research Co.

L'Estrange, Cecil. 1969. A Guide To The Origin of British Surnames. Gale Research Co.

----------. 1968. A History of Surnames of The British Isles; A Concise Account of Their Origin, Evolution, Etymology, and Legal Status 1877-. Gale Research Co.

MacLysaght, Edward. 1964. A Guide to Irish Surnames. Genealogical Book Co.

----------. 1980. The Surnames of Ireland. Irish Academic Press.

Mansfield, G. M. 1988. Family History Index : A List of Less Than Common Surnames Found In 25 Selected Family Histories. G.M. Mansfield.

Pine, L. G. 1967. The Story of Surnames. C. E. Tuttle Co.

Platt, Lyman De. 1996. Hispanic Surnames and Family History. Genealogical Publishing Co.

Reaney, Percy H. 1967. The Origin of English Surnames. 1880-1968. Barnes & Noble.

Redmonds, George. 1935. Surnames and Genealogy. New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Rowlands, John. 1996.The Surnames of Wales : For Family Historians and Others 1938-. Genealogical Pub. Co.

Sims, Clifford Stanley. 1969. The Origin and Signification of Scottish Surnames; With a Vocabulary of Christian Names 1839-1896. C. E. Tuttle Co.

Smith, Elsdon Coles. 1986, c1969. American Surnames. Genealogical Pub. Co.,

Vallentine, John F. 1975. Locality Finding Aids For U.S. Surnames. Everton.

1. M. Schele DeVere, “Names of Men,” Harper's Magazine (December 1865- May 1866); electronic edition, Google Books, By Making of America Project, Harper's Magazine Foundation, Original University of Michigan, (
PA51&ots=HzRaJK1fGS&sig=oQBzJILc8x454A-SGpOsZa6fitM : Digitized Apr 4, 2007, accessed 17 July 2007), pg. 51.


Thanks Chris Dunham for doing the heavy lifting and finding my quote online!


DeVere,M. Schele “Names of Men,” Harper's Magazine (December 1865- May 1866). Electronic edition. Google Books, Making of America Project, Harper's Magazine Foundation, Original University of Michigan.
HzRaJK1fGS&sig=oQBzJILc8x454A-SGpOsZa6fitM : 2007.

Hanks, Patrick. Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Redmonds, George. Surnames and Genealogy. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1935.

Stockdill, Roy. "How To Research Your Surname," Your Family History 45 (December 2006): 24-30.


Ernest Lavisse, Historie De France (D.C. Heath & Co. 1919) 1, 2, 12, 34, 105, 108.


Blogger Jasia said...

Yeowza! What a great post! You certainly did your homework. Thanks for a great read.

July 17, 2007 at 11:42 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I agree, a great read. I found your quote in an 1866 issue of Harper's.

July 17, 2007 at 11:54 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Jasia & Chris:

Glad you enjoyed it - several hours in the Seattle Central Library.

And who would have thought anyone would have read the footnotes! But then it is the fM's blog.

Thanks Chris for finding my errant quote. I have change the footnotes and bibliography to reflect your good work, and have given you credit for the heavy lifting.


July 17, 2007 at 12:41 PM  
Blogger Miriam Robbins said...

Incredible post, Maven! Wow!

July 17, 2007 at 2:08 PM  
Blogger Janice said...

Ditto on Jasia's "Yeowza!" Your suggested reading list is amazing fM. I enjoyed this article very much.


July 20, 2007 at 8:10 AM  
Blogger Mel said...

A very informative post! Naming practices can be very confusing.

October 16, 2008 at 7:41 PM  

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