A surname, or family name, communicates important information about a person’s history. It can tell you where your ancestors were from, what they did for a living, and their personality.
Some surnames denote family connections (called patronymic surnames). Others were based on the first bearer’s physical characteristics or descriptive traits.
Often, last names have special meanings that can help to connect us with our family history and traditions. These special last name meanings can also provide a sense of pride and power in one’s identity, which is important for some people.
When individuals delve into their family history and seek to understand the origins of their surname, a surname meaning search becomes a fascinating endeavor, shedding light on the historical and cultural roots embedded in their family name.
A surname (also called a family name or given name) is the portion of a person’s full name that comes from their parents and indicates their lineage, usually written after the first name. Surnames may also have prefixes or suffixes that add to the meaning, such as a place of origin (William de Worcester), a profession (Parker), or physical characteristics like Pollard for bald men and Cruikshank for those with crooked legs (the latter was a nickname for the famous writer Ernest Hemingway).
It is not uncommon for a surname to be derived from a country (Portugal, France, Denmark, or Netherlands), a specific location in a city or town (Wood), or even a particular animal (Rover for someone who lives in the countryside or dog for someone who works with dogs). In some cultures, a surname can denote one’s religion (Abbot, Bishop, Kilpatrick) or an ancestor’s title or rank in the military (Rogers for an army soldier or Thompson for a fighter pilot). It is also possible to have a surname based on a special characteristic such as eye color, height, weight, or hair color (Rodgers, Hemingway, Ross, and Ventura). Lastly, surnames can be changed when a person marries or moves to another country.
A surname (a family name or last name) identifies a person’s heritage and history. It can give clues to where ancestors lived, what they did for a living or even the way they looked many hundreds of years ago.
It’s important to remember that last names weren’t widely used before the 11th century and didn’t exist in hunter-gatherer societies. As populations grew, however, hereditary names became the norm, and a few general naming patterns emerged.
Occupational surnames, for example, were created to distinguish individuals by profession. A last name like Smith could identify generations of blacksmiths in a single family. Other common surnames were geographical in origin, including names such as Hampshire and Beckham.
Some last names were patronymic, deriving from a father’s forefather’s, the first name of an earlier male ancestor. Others were descriptive, based on a person’s qualities. For example, the descriptive surname Redhead is a synonym for red hair.
In addition, some last names were derived from a specific place where the person lived, such as Stratford or Carmichael. Lastly, some previous names were created by adding suffixes to the original name. For example, the suffixes -ton, -wick, -ley, -Thorpe, -land and -ford described locations in England.
Meanings in English
Many meanings can be found within English surnames, revealing our ancestors’ historical significance and cultural heritage. Some, like Smith or Baker (the names of both trades), reflect historical occupations, while others are descriptive (like Hill or Wood) or place-based (like Hampshire and Burton).
Occupational and descriptive surnames make up the bulk of the population. These include names such as Black, White, Gray and Swift, which probably echo the appearance or personality of our ancestors. Others, such as Campbell and Middleton, refer to a particular natural landscape location or feature.
Many English surnames are patronymic, derived from the father’s father’s. Examples include Benson (“the son of B”n”), Davis, Da” son, Evans, Harris, Jackson, Johnson, Morrison, Nicholson, Robinson, Simpson, Thompson and Watson. Others are matronymic, based on the mother’s. Examples include Madison (from Maud), Molson, and Emmott.
Place names make up nearly half the English population, including topographical ones such as Hampshire and Burton and habitational ones like Atfield, Atwood, Attewell, and Atten Ash. Some place names were derived from words no longer used, such as the (at) and el (river ford). Others were created with a prefix such as Byron (cattle sheds), Bythesea, Bygrave and Byron. Place names are also derived from geographic features, such as Brook, Heath, Lee and Oak.
Meanings in other languages
Depending on culture and language, surnames can have many different meanings. Some may be based on occupation, others may be derived from geographic locations, and others may refer to specific personal characteristics.
Surnames that reference a named location are known as toponymics. They may refer to a particular city, village, town or estate. They can also refer to a specific geographic feature, such as a river, mountain or forest.
Another type of surname is patronymic, which refers to a child’s father of his male ancestors. It is common in Scandinavian, Slavic, Germanic, and Iberian languages. Examples of this type of surname include Anderson (son of Anders), Davis (son of David), and Johnson (son of John).
In some cultures, the family name is placed after the given or personal name instead of a middle name. This is the case in Japan, China (mainland and Taiwan), Korea, Vietnam and other East Asian cultures.
Occasionally, a person will change their surname to fit the local culture or reflect their religion. For example, in the 1980s, after moving to Siirt, Western Armenia, two Iranian brothers, Ibrahim and Ismail Nassir, changed their surname from Shahinian to Nassir, meaning falcon. This was not a popular move, and they were often mocked in the local community for it.