What's in a Name? (Part 2)

16 Apr 2018 by Leah Klocek

Previously, we discussed how, when it comes to names, spelling was more of a suggestion than a rule.  And not even a significant suggestion, more like a, "You should wait 45 minutes after eating to go swimming" type of suggestion.  This time, we're going to tackle the question of whether all people with the same surname are related to each other.


Surname Origins


So we like famous people.  It's not terribly unusual for people to do a Google search for their surname to see if anyone of historical note has shared that surname.  Or, at least, I think it's pretty common.  I'm sure you do that too... And there's absolutely nothing wrong with wondering if you might, in fact, be related to that pretty cool person who did something important and shares your surname; there's also nothing wrong with putting together a research plan with the intention of finding out once and for all, unless you find that you're related to Benedict Arnold, in which case, you clear your browser history and pretend that day never happened.


But if you gain an improved understanding of when and how people generally came by surnames, you will probably approach your research with a little more healthy skepticism.  Since I'm all about healthy skepticism, let's do this.


For many of the people in the world, surnames as we use them today are a relatively recent acquisition.  The biggest exception to this is China, where surnames have been common for over 2000 years.  














The Chinese have an ancient and proud civilization, and have been in the forefront of many cultural and scientific innovations over the centuries.  That said, they still haven't figured out how to make food without those disgusting black mushrooms.  So I guess it's a wash.


In many places, patronymics were proto-surnames; a patronymic is a part of a name based upon the name of one's father.  An Eastern European Jewish man, for example, for the vast majority of the last 2000 years, would have been known simply as, "Aaron Ben David," or "Aaron son of David."  In Wales, "Rhys ap Hywel," was "Rhys son of Hywel," or in Russia, "Ivan Nikolayevich," was actually just "Ivan son of Nikolay."  There were, of course, also feminine variations of all of these.  While this system may appear advantageous for genealogists at first because it gives you the name of the father right off the bat, it gets frustrating really quickly once you find yourself asking, "Which Hywel? There were like ten of them in that damn town."  


Patronymics are still in use in quite a few areas of the world, and there are many modern surnames that have been derived from an older patronymic.  A simple example of this would be Johnson, or "John's son."  A couple other English examples of names derived this way are Andrews ("Andrew's [son]") and Davis ("David's [son]").


Surnames that aren't derived from patronymics tend to originate from one of three other categories: occupations, nicknames, or toponymic (dealing with location or land features).  There's one other category -- ornamental surnames -- but we'll discuss that separately in a minute since those names originated differently.  So let's imagine that we're in a small medieval English village (this process happened similarly in many places, but since, if you're reading this blog, you're pretty comfortable with the English language, using English names makes for an easily understood thought exercise).  Don't worry, in a minute, you'll be able to come back to 2018, take a bath, drink the water, and not have consumption.  In this village, the baker is named Tom.  His friend George lives on the hill behind the church.  George's younger brother John is something of a philanderer.  Since they all have very common given names, other people need to find a way to differentiate each of these men from the other Toms, Georges, and Johns in the area, or at least, the ones who haven't yet died of consumption.  So Tom is called "Tom the baker," George becomes "George of the church hill," and John is somewhat scornfully referred to as, "John the loveless."  Over time, these monikers began to stick to the family as a whole; a couple generations later, these men's grandsons may have been known as Tom Baker, George Churchill, and John Lovelace.1





















 This picture depicts the famous incident when Steven Piegrabber wound up getting his lights knocked out by Tom Baker.

Original image: "Peasant Wedding" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567/8.


Let's look at a few more examples of each type of non-patronymic surname from different cultures/languages:



Appelman - Dutch, "fruit dealer"

Driver - English, "driver of horses/oxen" 

Fleishmann - German, "butcher"

Halasz - Hungarian, "fisher"

Hoffman - German, "steward"

Kazanowski - Polish, "cauldron maker"

Melnyk - Ukrainian, "miller"

Murphy - Irish, "sea-warrior"

Schneider - German, "tailor"

Stolyarov - Russian, "descendent of carpenter"

Tkach - Eastern Europe (various), "weaver"



A quick word about nicknames: as today, historical nicknames arose for a variety of reasons; they could refer to a person's physical appearance, to their character, to an incident that they were involved in, to animals they reminded others of, to time/season of birth or baptism; they could even be ironic ("They call me Little John, but don't let my name fool you.  In real life, I'm very big.").  Because nicknames often stem from colloquial language and tend to be ephemeral, they can be the hardest group of surnames for which to pin down an origin.  For simplicity's sake, all of the following examples derive from English.  

Armstrong (a strong man)

Brown (hair color or complexion)

Goodfellow (a good fellow, or just really liked the movie)

Heron (long-legged)

Moody (mercurial)

Peacock (proud)

Summer (may either relate to season of birth or to disposition)

Stern (stern)

Wagstaff (if bestowed today, this nickname would be given to a particularly aggressive flasher)



Catalano - Italian, indicating a person from Catalonia (a region in northeastern Spain)

Goldfeld - mostly Ashkenazi Jews, meaning "gold field," and referring to people who lived near corn or wheat fields

Holmes - Either: English, for someone who lived near a holly tree (holm in Middle English), or Irish, for someone who lived in a town of that name near Dundonald, County Down2 

Lithgow - Scottish, derived from Linlithgow (a town in West Lothian, Scotland)

Rosenberg - German, literally "mountain of roses," but generally referring to people who lived near a red hill

Spagnoli - Italian, meaning "Spaniard"

Van Acker - Dutch, meaning "from the farmland"


Let's return to our original example of Tom the baker.  It would be eminently fair to say that most villages, towns, and cities in England possessed at least one baker.  It would also be fair to say that at least some of those bakers took their surname from their occupation, rather than from a nickname, a patronymic, or the location of their home.  Here, then, is the vital question: Would it be fair to say that all of those bakers who took the surname Baker were related to each other?


The answer, if you think about it for a couple seconds, should be an obvious and resounding, "NO."  Not all English bakers were related to each other, and so, consequently, not all Bakers are related to each other.  This follows for surnames derived from other categories.  Let me repeat this again, because this is very important: not everyone with the same last name is related to each other, which ought to come as a huge relief if your surname is McCarthy.

















 Pictured here: not your relative.


We do still have one more category of surnames to take a look at, as I mentioned before: ornamental surnames.  Unlike the previous categories of names we've examined, which usually arose organically, these names are more common in communities that adopted, or were forcibly given, surnames in the 1700s or 1800s.  Most often, they are found in Jewish, German, or Scandinavian people, as well as Chinese Indonesians and Chinese Thais.  As the category indicates, these are names adopted for their beauty, rather than their ability to differentiate two people with the same given name.  A couple examples of these ornamental surnames are: Ahlborn (Swedish, from the Swedish for "alder" and the German for "born"), Astrom (Swedish, meaning "small river stream"), Morgenstern (German, "morning star"), Blum (German/Jewish, meaning "flower"), and Edelstein (German/Jewish, "gemstone"). 


For some perspective, let's wrap this all up with just a few examples of when different historical groups received/took on surnames.



Prior to the Norman invasion of 1066, surnames were a foreign concept to the inhabitants of Britain.  Patronymics were used to separate this Richard from that Richard who lived nearby.  When William the Conquerer landed, his Norman knights brought the first surnames to England.  These were toponymic surnames, usually related to their estates in Normandy.  The practice gradually spread as described in our example above with Tom Baker et al. and by around 1400 or so, surnames were common among the English people and the lowland Scots.  New surnames continued to be formed after this time, while older surnames warped with time and changing pronunciation.  English parish registers only go back as far as 1538, so unless you have some nobility in your tree, the odds of tracking down precisely where, when, and how your family's surname began may not be terribly likely (but also not impossible if you get lucky!). 


Ashkenazi Jewish

Eastern European Jews generally went by patronymics until the late 1700s.  In 1787, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II ordered all Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to drop their standard patronymics and adopt German surnames in exchange for emancipation.  If they refused to choose a surname, one would be chosen for them.  The names they chose came from each category: toponymic, nicknames, occupational, ornamental, even German patronymic, but there wasn't necessarily any meaningful connection between the surname and the person forced to wield it.  This is why most names we Americans consider to be "Jewish," such as Goldberg, Weissman, Rosenfeld, and others, are not strictly Jewish in origin, but German.  If you travel to Germany, you will find many non-Jews with these names.  Other regions followed Joseph II's example.  The Russian czar, most prominently, decreed in 1804 that the Jews in the Russian Empire needed to adopt more standard surnames. Then, in 1835, a second decree stated that, not only did they all need to have standard surnames, but that they would not be allowed to change those surnames once chosen.  As with their Austro-Hungarian counterparts, Russian Jews chose names based on all of the usual categories, or had names chosen for them.3 



The Japanese came to their surnames later than most.  Until the second half of the 19th century, family names were confined to the nobility. Before this, when necessary, the ordinary rank-and-file would differentiate by referring to the place of their birth ("Ishiro from Shimane City").  Given names were fluid, as well, changing with the attainment of a higher social status, or the desire to demonstrate allegiance to a specific family/clan, or even sometimes upon coming of age! The Meiji government passed the Family Register Law of 1898 as part of the country's rapid push towards modernization, requiring all commoners to select a surname in addition to their given name.  The Japanese people drew on all sorts of things to create their surnames: historical names, names deemed auspicious by the family Buddhist or Shinto priest, names chosen through divination, even names that were just made up.  The three most common Japanese surnames today are Satō (佐藤, referring to the powerful and ancient Fujiwara clan), Suzuki (鈴木, literally, "bell tree," referring to a bell hanging under the eaves of a Shinto shrine), and Takahashi (高橋, "high bridge").  However, with so many options to choose from, and with more than one way to pronounce each Chinese character that comprised the names -- as well as many more than one character that could be used to elicit a specific pronunciation -- Japan has somewhere over 100,000 surnames in active use today.  Between the fluidity of given names, the sheer plethora of surnames, and the only very recent adoption of surnames by the vast majority of the country, Japanese ancestry is extraordinarily difficult to trace past the mid/late 1800s.  



Though the ancient Romans used surnames in a system whereby people were known by three names (Gaius Julius Caesar, for example, or Publius Cornelius Tacitus), that custom died out in the Middle Ages, and so for hundreds of years, Italians were known only by their given names with an occasional patronymic added into the mix.  Around the year 1000 CE, some geniuses in Venice started adding a second name for the customary reason: to avoid confusion and differentiate people with the same name.  The custom slowly spread from there, and from the nobility to the common folk.  By the year 1500, most people had taken on surnames.  In 1564, the Council of Trent issued a decree to parish priests to record each individual with both given name and surname, thus cementing a surname as necessary for all from that point on.  Patronymics are common in Italian surnames ("de Luca," or "child of Luke" is a quite common example), but Italian surnames also provide the usual complement of occupational, toponymic, and nickname-derived surnames.  



Norwegian surnames, like many others, were originally patronymic.  They traditionally ended with the suffixes, ""-ssen", "-sson", "-sdatter", or "-sdotter," with the father's name in front (sometimes the extra "s" in front was also dropped).  A law requiring a single, hereditary last name wasn't passed until 1923; most families at the time chose to maintain a surname derived from their current patronymic, which is why, of the top 20 surnames in Norway, 17 are originally patronymic (with Hansen, Johansen, and Olsen being the top three).  Other families largely chose to go with toponymic surnames; the three top 20 surnames not taken from patronymics are Berg ("mountain" or "hill"), Haugen ("hill" or "mound"), and Hagen ("enclosed pasture").4




Names are not a static, unchanging monolith stretching back to time immemorial.  Rather, names are a dynamic force, like a river, shifting with time and with the different paths our ancestors chose.  They evolve.  They can be fairly ancient or they can be shiny and new within the last few generations.  They might say something important about one of your ancestors, but they might also say nothing at all other than that someone somewhere thought that it sure was a pretty name.  Names are, in and of themselves, a fascinating and frustrating component of any person's family history research.  Keep an open mind and go forth.




1 Actually, the Middle English word for "loveless" was "lufeless," and this particular name might have taken a bit longer to reach its current form; the grandson might have been called John Lufeless.  


2 This is an example of a polygenetic name, meaning that it has more than one potential source.  Names with only one origin point are monogenetic.


3 When dealing with endogamous (interbreeding) populations like the Ashkenazi Jewish, the answer to our question, "Am I related to everyone who shares my surname?" is a bit different.  Odds are, if you are an Ashkenazi Jew (or a Finn, a Mennonite, or member of another endogamous group) and you meet a person with your same ethnic background, you are, in fact, genetically related, regardless of shared surname or no.  The question then becomes whether you are related recently enough or closely enough to be genealogically useful.  


4 Please note that Hagen is a polygenetic surname, also appearing independently and with a different meaning in Ireland.

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