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Origin of Surnames

Primitive personal names doubtless originated soon after the invention of spoken language, in the unrecorded ages long preceding modern history. For thousands of years first, or given names, were the only designations that men and women bore; and at the dawn of recorded historic times, when the world was less crowded than it is today and every man knew his neighbors, one title of address was sufficient. Only gradually, with the passing centuries and the increasing complexity of civilized society, did a need arise for. more specific designations.

As early as Biblical times certain distinguishing characteristics were occasionally used in addition to the given name, as, for instance, Swein Forkbeard, Harold Bluetooth, Joshua the son of Nun, Azariah the son of Nathan, Judas of Galilee, and Simon the Zealot. In ancient Greece a daughter was named after her father, as Chryseis, daughter of Chryses; and a son's name was often an enlargement for of his father's, as Hieronymus son of Hiero.

The Chinese were the first to adopt surnames to honor their forebears, with the family name placed first, rather than last. Thus, the family name of Sun Yat-sen is Sun.

The Romans, with the rise of their civilization, met the need for hereditary designations by inventing a complex system whereby every patrician took several names - given-name + clan-name + family-name - about 300 B.C.. None of them, however, exactly corresponded to surnames as we know them, for the "clan name", although hereditary, was given also to slaves and other dependents. Examples are the Claudians, the house of Tiberias and the Julians. This system proved to be but a temporary innovation; the overthrow of the Western Empire by Celtic and Germanic barbarian invaders brought about its end and a reversion to the primitive custom of a single name.

The ancient Scandinavians, and for the most part the Germans and the Celts, had only individual names, and there were no family names, strictly speaking. But as family and tribal groups grew in size, individual names became inadequate and the need for supplementary designations began to be felt. Among the first employed were such terms as the Hardy, the Stern, the Dreadful-in-Battle; and the nations of northern Europe soon adopted the practice of adding the father's name to the son's, as Oscar son of Carnuth and Dermid son of Duthno.

The practice of attaching a word to help identify a man was resurrected in Venice and spread first to France, then England, then Germany -- then to the rest of Europe. (Most of Europe, anyway...) In the English-speaking part of the world, the exact date that surnames began to be adopted can't be pinpointed, however, during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) there were Saxon tenants in Suffolk bearing such names as Suert Magno, Stigand Soror, Siuward Rufus, and Leuric Hobbesune (Hobson). The use of 'surnames' was quite extensive among the Norman nobility, and the Norman conquest saw a more formally introduced.

In 1086 when William the Conqueror compiled the Domesday Book he made the essential that all of those mentioned had a surname. So many people took on locality and patronymic names.

The surname used in the Domesday Book were not true hereditary surnames are not considered to have been commonplace until the late 1200's and by the end of the twelfth century hereditary names had become common in England.

British surnames became fixed in the period between 1250 and 1450. But even as late as 1465 they were not universal. The broad range of ethnic and linguistic roots for British surnames reflects the history of Britain as an oft-invaded land. These roots include, but are not limited to, Old English, Middle English, Old French, Old Norse, Irish, Gaelic, Celtic, Pictish, Welsh, Gaulish, Germanic, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

During the reign of Edward V a law was passed to compel certain Irish to adopt surnames as a method to track and control them more: "They shall take unto them a Surname, either of some Town, or some Color, as Black or Brown, or some Art or Science, as Smyth or Carpenter, or some Office, as Cooke or Butler." And as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century a similar decree compelling Jews in Germany and Austria to add a German surname to the single names that they had previously used.

William Camden wrote in Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine: (1586): "About the yeare of our Lord 1000...surnames began to be taken up in France, and in England about the time of the Conquest, or else a very little before, under King Edward the Confessor, who was all Frenchified...but the French and we termed them Surnames, not because they are the names of the sire, or the father, but because they are super added to Christian names as the Spanish called them Renombres, as Renames.

Types of Surnames
A surname is a name added to a baptismal or given name for the purposes of making it more specific and of indicating family relationship or descent. Classified according to origin, most surnames fall into four general groups:It is easier to understand the story of the development of our institution of surnames if these classifications are borne in mind

  Those taking -- or based on -- the first name of the ancestor's father (patronymic)
  Those nicknames that describe the ancestor's face, figure, temper, morals, or habits.
  Those derived from locality or place of residence;
  Those derived from occupation or Status of the ancestor

Surname Origin Types
In some cases it is clear which origin type a certain surname is. However many surnames are not so easily classified. Some may have several seperate origins, having been derived from more than one original name.

  Monogenetic names evolved from a single origin - These surnames can be traced back to a single person or sept from whom the name originally arose. Examples of monogenetic names are O’Callaghan, Doherty and Crowley
  Polygenetic names evolved from multiple separate origins - The same surname may have arisen in different areas of the country completely seperately. Alternatively different names may have gradually been distorted and merged. This sometimes occurs when a common surname engulfs other less common ones of similar sound. Examples of polygenetic names are Murphy, O’Flynn and O’Connor

Name Variations
Some surnames of today which seem to defy classification or explanation are corruptions of ancient forms that have become disguised almost beyond recognition.

For instance, Troublefield was originally Tuberville; Wrinch was Renshaw; Diggles was Douglas; Sinnocks and Snooks were Sevenoaks; Barrowcliff and Berrycloth were Barraclough; and Strawbridge was Stourbridge; Such corruptions of family names, resulting from ignorance of spelling, variations in pronunciation, or merely from the preference of the bearer, tend to baffle both the genealogist and the etymologist. Shakespeare's name is found in some twenty-seven different forms, and the majority of English and Anglo-American surnames have, in their history, appeared in four to a dozen or more variant spellings. For example the German family Winegar that came to North America in the Palatine Migration of 1709 has their name listed in various lists as Winegar, Wenniger, Winneger, Weyniger, Wyniger, Weneger, Winiger and Wienneger.

In Australia and the United States there is a great variety of family names, with surnames of every religion, race and nation are represented. While a substantial number are of English, Scotch, Irish, Welsh, and western European origin, brought to this country by scions of families that had borne these names for generations prior to emigration, many others have come from central and southern Europe and the Slavic countries, where the use of surnames is generally a more recently established practice. Some families had no fixed surname until after their arrival; and in other cases emigrants from continental Europe or their descendants have translated or otherwise modified their names. These factors contribute to the difficulties encountered by students of etymology and family history.

While the name, in its origin, may seem ingenious, humble, surprising, or matter-of-fact, its significance today lies not in a literal interpretation of its initial meaning but in the many things that have happened to it since it first came into use. In the beginning it was only a label to distinguish one John from his neighbor John who lived across the field. But soon it established itself as part of the bearer's individuality; and as it passed to his children, his children's children, and their children, it became the symbol not of one man but of a family and all that that family stood for. Handed down from generation to generation, the surname grew inseparably associated with the achievement, the tradition, and the prestige of the family. Like the coat of arms - that vivid symbolization of the name which warrior ancestors bore in battle - the name itself has become a badge of family honor. It has become the "good name" to be proud of and to protect as one's most treasured possession.


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Page Last Updated: June 13, 2006

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