HOW SURNAMES BEGAN
The first clue to who we are and where we
came from is our names. Yes, our names are our most personal possession. In many
ways they say to the world who we are. They can bring us fortune as well as
shame. Our names can give others, rightfully or wrongfully so, a predisposition
of whether they will like us or dislike us. Historically, our names are a
fingerprint, identification, and perhaps a clue as to who we are and where we
Most names in the United States today come from the Hebrew, German, Latin, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh languages. So it's rather ironic when a new immigrant comes to our country, that they give their children an "American" name, which of course, came from a Hebrew or European origin.
In 325 A.D. the Catholic church outlawed the use of pagan names and names from pagan gods. So the use of Biblical names became the norm. The church went further in 1545 as it made the use of saint's names mandatory before Catholic baptism. As a result, there were only about twenty common names for boys and girls.
Later in the next century the Reformation and Protestant religions rejected Catholic mandates and traditions. So their children were named after New Testament and Old Testament names, rather than saint's names.
Middle names were first introduced by German nobility in the fifteenth century, but did not become common until the seventeen hundreds. A middle name was not common in the United States until after the Revolutionary War. The tradition then was to use the mother's maiden name as the middle name. (Knowing this may be a good first clue when tracing your ancestry around this period. However, nothing is ever always absolute).
There are over 1.5 Million family names and there variants used in the U.S. today. Historical Research Center has researched over 600,000 of these names so far, with thousands being added each year. But there is still a long way to go.
So, Where did all these names come from?
The use of a surname or "family" names started in Western countries at about the turn of the last millennium, 1,000 years ago. As the population grew, it became more difficult for commerce to know who owed money to whom. If Peter was to actually pay Paul, then it became important to know which Peter owed which Paul. So last names, or descriptive names, indicating which Peter or Paul, began. At the time, Peter and Paul did not even know or care that a descriptive name was attached to their first name. Nor was the same descriptive name used with each transaction.
It is generally agreed that Western civilized countries developed names from one of four ways. The most popular, with about 43% of all names falling into this category, were LOCATION NAMES. These surnames came from the town, estates, or city where the person lived. Nobles took on the name of their estate, and passed it down to their sons. The peasants took on the names of their village most often, or a distinguishing geographical characteristic.
Thus names like Atwater, Atwood, Glen, Green, London, Mill, Newtown, Rivers etc. came into being.
The second most common source of names, about 33%, are names coming form KINSHIP or SON OF names. Your know them: Johnson, Peterson, O'Neill, MacLaughlin, Janowicz, Mendelsohn, Sanchez and Bertucci, to name just a few. All meaning son-of or descendant of a first named father. However, this was not as simple as it may have appeared.
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You see, it took a few centuries and a king's decree for the SON OF names to become organized. Here's why. Suppose Peter had a newborn son. Let's say he proudly named him John Peterson. John, a good common first name, and son of Peter (Peterson) as the last name. That's simple enough. However, when John Peterson grew up and had a son of his own he could proudly gave him the first name of James and the last name of Johnson or James Johnson. Why? Because James was a wonderful name for a boy, and by all means, he is the son of John, right? So, his name was James Johnson. But when James had a son he named him Adam Jamison. Which then lead to the surname of Adamson, and so on and so on. And who said tracing your family tree was boring?
So, Peter, Peterson, Johnson, Jamison and Adamson were five generations of direct descendants. This was confusing.
It wasn't until Henry V decreed that surnames had to be included on all official papers that the legal process of standardizing family names began. So Adamson stayed Adamson, at least for a while anyway.
The third most common source of names came from OCCUPATIONAL NAMES. Many people think this is the number one source of name derivation, but actually only 15% of names come from this category. This is how we got the Smith, Miller, Taylor, Cooper, Cook, Farmer names, to name a few. The reason there are so many Smith's, Millers, Taylors, etc. when this is not the most common source of names, was due to immigration.
You see, when Hans Becker arrived on these shores, he Americanized his name to Baker. When the Krawczyk's arrived they changed their name to Taylor. And the French Charpentier family changed their name to Carpenter. So did the Italian Carbone family, change their name to Miner. It's the translated name's that have made the numbers of OCCUPATIONAL NAMES so common.
The last and least popular source of surname creation, only 9%, came from NICKNAMES or PET NAMES. I had a great-grandfather named Redman. This name could have been taken (of given) because someone had a reddish complexion or red hair, for example. A name like Goodman, may have originally described a kind or generous individual. The name Little, Small or Short, named for a small or short man. And, if you have a Stout in your family tree, well...there may have been a reason for that too.
But of the 1.5 Million names in this country, all are not of European origin, and some have been around a lot longer than 1,000 years. Such as CHINESE names dating back to 2800 B.C..
In 2852 B.C. the Chinese Emperor mandated that all names come from a sacred poem. It wasn't even a very long poem either. And since most people wouldn't choose to name their family after a preposition for example, this has lead to about only 1,000 names total, of which 60 are common surnames. So few names to spread around a Billion people today. In the U.S. there are 1.5 Million names used among a population of 1/3 Billion.
AFRICAN Americans did not get their surnames, for the most part, from slave owners, as is popularly assumed.
When slaves were brought to this country they were given a random first name by the new master. They did not have last names. Nor were they allowed to refer to themselves by their African tribal names. Surnames were not used by African Americans until after they were freed from slavery.
Once freed, they did not name themselves after the masters of their misery. For who would want a constant reminder of a miserable past? But rather they chose names that were well known, or from prestigious families in the South. Many of those names were Irish, Scottish, English or Welch.
Even then, last names were not always passed on to the next generation. Often, a name was changed to a more "favorable" one whenever they wanted to. That is until the draft of World War I and the implementation of Social Security made it more difficult to make such random changes.
Unlike English names, which derived mostly form Location and Kinship names, GERMAN names were derived mostly form Occupational names like Kaufman, meaning merchant or Schmidt meaning smith. The second most common source for German names were from colors, such as Braun (brown), Grun (green), Rosen (rose), Roth (red), Schwarz (black) and Weiss (white). Nicknames were the second to last most common source of names followed by location names.
German Jews however were made to take their names by law in the early 1800s. Those who paid certain German officials were given good names and names of beauty. Those who did not pay were given ugly names like Eselskopf meaning ass's head, or Saumagen (hog's paunch), Durst (thirst) or Bettelarm (destitute).
The SCOTTISH had a problem with infant mortality during the Middle Ages. So, if a Scottish father wanted to be sure a son would carry his full name he left nothing to chance...and gave all his sons his same first name. The odds were in his favor this way. He wasn't thinking about the frustrated genealogist descendant that would follow 500 years later.
The Scottish also had a practice of changing their last names whenever they moved. The change would be made to please the Lord of the land. So, your Campbell relation may have really been a Fraser or a MacDonald at different times.
Knowing all this, it may seem amazing that we can trace family names at all. But knowing all this can actually help you sort out a more accurate puzzle of who you are and from where you came.
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