What’s In a (Sur)name?

Last week when I wrote about the shared surnames my friend and I have, I got to thinking about what all  those surnames mean and where they really came from. Here is what I discovered. 

First, there were no surnames before around the year 1000 A.D. because there simply were not that many people. Then, the population began to expand and it was needed that when John owed Paul, someone needed to know which John and which Paul, so instead of being called, John, son of James, John was called John Jameson. And so it began in those early days in Western Europe. Keep in mind that these examples are for the English origin of surnames. There are endings for German, Polish, Russian, etc., etc.,, which will tell their own story. Common “son of” names include: -son, O’-, Mac-, or Mc-, -ucci, -wicz, Fitz-, and -ski.

(As a sidebar, all given or first names back then were either derived from the saints, or Christian names — courtesy of the Pope. He outlawed pagan names in the 4th century, first saying all names had to be from the saints, then a later Pope said they simply had to be Christian names. Since it was only Popes and Kings who had the “say” back then, in the beginning, we were all Peter, Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke,  John, Mary, Margaret, and Elizabeth.) Thank goodness that the population was small. Could you imagine 1000 Marys walking around at one time! Could you imagine someone yelling, “hey, Mary” and all Marys turn around at once!!

Back to the surnames. There are four distinct categories how we got a surname: 

#1 — Kinship — what I wrote on above, being the son, daughter, or family of

#2 — Location — Nobles took the name of their estates, peasants took the name of their village. So, if you lived in London, your last name could be London, or Green, or if you lived near a mill, you could be named Mill. Churchill was a man who lived near a church on a hill. Or, think of compass directions — Eastman or Westwood. Maybe your last name is Greenwood. You could have came from the village of Green by the woods. Fun to try to figure out, huh?

#3 — Occupation — Here is where we get common surnames — Smith (blacksmith), Miller (mills), Taylor (altered clothing), Cook, Farmer, and Bishop (employed by the Bishop). So, if I was going to get a surname today, it could be Mary Writer, or if my father wrote, I would be Mary Writerson, or maybe Mary Wordsmith, or Mary Wordson, Of course, the vast majority of people were not educated (only the nobles and clergy), so unless if I came from that family, I never would have learned to write let alone know how to read the alphabet.

#4 — Nicknames — Here is where Armstrong got his name because he was strong in the arm, or Redman because he was a man with, say, red hair or had a red cast to his skin, or Little, or Small.

Now that I have explained how the surnames started some 1000 years ago, I need to let you know that as we migrated to America, all may have changed, or the spelling changed. I know that my surname has gone through some four different spellings as the years wore on. Also, if you could not read or write and you were coming to America, it was up to the person who was taking your information to spell your name correctly, if they did that at all. You just may have gotten a surname of the village or river you came from in the “old country” because the intake person could get that information from the ship’s log.

The next time I see a Taylor or Miller or Armstrong or Davidson or Greenwood, I will know what your forefathers did, or maybe a characteristic they were known for. Names are fun…

Until next week, enjoy yourself….


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