How your Ancestors got their Names and what Names mean


Have you ever experienced your name being misspelled? It strikes one very personally because your name is your possession and identification, and it tells the world who you are. Historically, names have served as a fingerprint of life, perhaps a basic clue to one's personality. Knowledge of naming practices in our ancestral country of origin can help us trace our respective families back to a village or place, an occupation, or it can give us an idea of how our ancestors looked. How and where they began, what they originally meant and their various spellings is called the study of onomastics.

Although the Chinese had hereditary surnames 2000 years ago, in Europe until 1100 A.D. most people had only one name. In fact, this is still true today in scattered parts of the world. As small towns and villages became more populated it became extremely awkward to have three Johns, four Roberts and six Williams all in one town without any additional designation. So very gradually one of the Johns who was known for his long legs became known as John the long fellow, and eventually John Longfellow. John, the village carpenter became known as John Carpenter. William lived near a small stream that was narrow and shallow enough that villagers could cross along with their animals. He was called William Ford. The William who was Robert's son became, of course, William Robertson.

So we find that surnames evolved from four general sources: A man's occupation; where he lived or had come from; his father's name; or from a personal characteristic or physical feature.

Occupation: The local house builder, food preparer, grain grinder and suit maker, would be named respectively: John Carpenter, John Cook, John Miller and John Taylor.

Location: The John who lived over the hill became known as John Overhill, the one who dwelled near a stream might be dubbed John Brook.

Patronymical (father's name): Many of these surnames can be recognized by the termination -- son, such as Williamson, Jackson, etc. Some endings used by other countries to indicate "son" are: Armenians - ian, Danes and Norwegians - sen. Finns - nen, Greeks - poulos, Spaniards - ez, and Poles - wiecz. Prefixes denoting "son" are the Welsh - Ap, the Scots and Irish - Mac, and the Normans - Fitz.

Characteristics: An unusually small person might be labeled Small, Short, Lityle, or Lytle. A large man might be named Longfellow, Large, Lang, or Long. Many persons having characteristics of a certain animal would be given the animal's name. Examples: A sly person might be named Fox; a good swimmer, Fish; a quiet man, Dove; etc.

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