A Brief History of Surnames This page will attempt to relate a brief history of surnames (or last names as we call them today), focusing on those of Western Europe. It will also discuss the categories of meanings that surnames come in. Originally, people had no use for surnames. They lived in communities that were small enough that it was unlikely people would have the same given name. Also, people rarely traveled great distances so it was unlikely they would meet anyone sharing the same name. As communities grew and people started traveling more there became a need to differentiate between people sharing the same given name. This caused surnames to come into existence.
The earliest surnames were not inherited as they are today. They simply described the person who bore the name. The most common early naming system of this sort is called patronymics (patro=father, nymics=naming). This system of surnames uses the name of a person’s father as that person’s surname. So, if a village had two people named Thomas in it, then one Thomas might be Thomas son of Robert and the other Thomas might be Thomas son of John. The one major disadvantage of this system is that with each generation surnames would change. For example, if you had Charles who was the father of Patrick who was the father of Thomas, then the full names of Charles’ son and grandson would be Patrick Charles and Thomas Patrick. Despite the lack of consistency that is found in a patronymic naming system, it was very popular in many countries of Western Europe for centuries. The following are examples of how several different groups of people used the patronymic system to develop surnames.
Denmark: the ending –sen (for a son) and –datter (for a daughter) was attached to the father’s name. e.g. Hansen, Sorensdatter
Sweden: similar to Denmark except –son and –dottir were used. e.g. Anderson, Svensdottir
Netherlands: The endings –s, -se, and –sen were used for son or daughter. e.g. Jansse or Dirks
Poland: For a son, -wicz was used. For a daughter, -ovna was used.
French/Old English: Fitz- was used for a son or a daughter, however people given surnames containing “Fitz” were often illegitimate. e.g. FitzGerald, FitzAlan.
Scotland: Mac- and Mc- (For a son or daughter). e.g. MacDonald, McLeod
Ireland: O’ and Mc- (for a son or daughter). The “O’” can also be used for a grandson or granddaughter. e.g. O’Brien, McDermott
Spain/Portugal: -ez (Spain) or –es (Portugal) e.g. Gonzales, Hernandez
Wales: In Wales, two patronymic systems existed. In one, the surnames of the children were the unmodified father’s name, so the son of Rees might be James Rees. In the second system the word “ap” (son of) or “verch/ferch” (daughter of) were incorporated into the new surname creating names like David ap Rhys or Maredudd ferch Llewelyn.
In addition to being named after their fathers, people were also named after places where they lived, either past or present. Place names come in several different categories. First, someone can be named after a village or town where they were born or have lived. People are rarely named after the town in which they are currently living, but after they leave that town and move to a new place they can be named after the town where they used to live. So someone named Ben who used to live in York came to be known as Ben of York or more simply Ben York.
Another form of a place surname occurs when people are name after a geographic feature that they lived near or on. People who lived near a hill or a mountain might have been called Hill (English), Maki (Finnish), Jurek (Poland), etc. People who lived near a lake or stream might have been called Loch (Scottish), Rio (Spanish) or Brooks (English). People were named after woods, stones, fields, swamps, fenced places, valleys, etc. People could be named after something simple like a place where grass grew (the -ley at the end of many surnames means this) or they could have been named because they lived on (or near) a field where barley was grown (Berland).
Place Surnames can often be found with prepositions meaning “of” or “from” attached to them. This can be seen in names like De Berry (of Berry) or Van Ness (From Ness).
A third type of surname that is found is a surname that is given to someone because of his or her personal characteristics. These characteristics could be physical addressing a person’s hair color, height, complexion, weight, etc. An example of a surname formed from a physical characteristic is the surname red, given to a red-haired person. Variations of this surname can be found in several countries and include: Reid (English), Russ (English), Rousseau (French), Rossi (Italian) Cerveny (Czech), Roth (German) and Flynn (Irish).
A second type of surname given based on personal characteristics would be a surname given on the basis of personality traits or abilities. Surnames can be found that mean fast, slow, dumb, smart, etc. Surnames that are animal names also fall into this category as they were usually assigned to people who shared characteristics with the animal they were named after. So someone called Fish might have been an excellent swimmer.
The forth and last general category of surnames might also be classified as a subset of personal characteristics. This category of surname is surnames that are given based on the surname bearer’s occupation. In this category, people were identified by their occupation. In English, some obvious examples of Occupational Surnames are: Taylor, Shepherd, Fisher, and Baker. These common occupational surnames can be found translated into most languages that had surnames. The topic of occupational surnames cannot be discussed without mentioning what is arguably the most popular occupational surname found, Smith. This surname was given to the worker of metals (often the blacksmith). Its variations include Schmidt (German, Danish), Kovars (Hungarian), Ferraro (Italian), Kowal (Polish), etc.
As mentioned above, surnames were originally given to a single person. These surnames would change from generation to generation, making it difficult to keep track of family relationship. As time moved on people stopped changing surnames from generation to generation. The first people to do this were often the nobility and royalty of an area. These permanent surnames seem to appear first after the first crusades. They started in France at about 1000 and spread with the Norman Invasion to England and Scotland. Most British surnames appear to have become fixed or permanent between 1250 and 1450. Places with strong ties to England developed a system of fixed surnames faster then others. The following is an overview of when some countries of Europe stopped using patronymics and developed an inherited surname system. Most of Scotland had fixed surnames early on, but it was not until the 18th century that people in the highlands stopped using a patronymic system. In the Netherlands, fixed surnames were officially adopted in 1811-1812, but it took a few decades for people to stop using a patronymic system. Scandinavian countries continued using a patronymic system longer then other countries even though laws were established by Napoleon and others to stop this practice. It wasn’t until about 1860 that people in Scandinavia started adopting fixed surnames.